State draft rule taps UHF technology for border card

The State Department today requested comments on a proposed regulation governing the biometric identification card that the department plans to adopt as secure proof of identity and citizenship for travelers re-entering the country, in a move that crystallized a critical radio frequency technology choice.

The draft rule confirmed the department's earlier announcement that it now favors the use of the long-awaited, ultra-high frequency vicinity technology for the People Access Security Service cards fielded under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. The technology choice will put the new credential on the same technology page as other border ID programs such as the NEXUS, FAST and SENTRI projects, in contrast to the high frequency or proximity read technology used in State's electronic passport.

The travel initiative, as currently framed by the administration and Congress, calls for citizens to be required to present secure proof of citizenship and identity at land borders as of June 1, 2009. The PASS cards, referred to in the regulation as passport cards, have been proposed as a cheaper alternative to passports for citizens who cross land borders frequently.

Other legal residents will be required to present comparable identification, and passports will still be required for travel to countries in Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, Latin America, south of Mexico, and elsewhere.

Technical disputes over the merits of the UHF and competing HF systems have simmered over recent months.

In the proposed rule, State said the secure credential would be valid for travel between the U.S., Canada, the Caribbean and Bermuda and would not be a globally interoperable document.

The UHF vicinity technology would allow reader equipment to link to the card from a distance of about 32 feet, in contrast to the HF proximity technology that functions within three feet. Proponents of both the technologies tout their current or future security benefits, while some privacy activists have questioned or denounced the use of RF technology of any kind for secure credentials.

'Using free read RFID technology is a bad idea,' said Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the Smart Card Alliance. 'Unlike electronic passports, which have built-in security features, a free read of a unique reference number at long distances opens possibilities to identify or even track U.S. citizens.'

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