PASS cards' memory in dispute

Critics claim DHS overlooked more secure optical memory for border cards

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When to hold 'em

As the federal government prepares to issue millions of biometric credentials to various categories of citizens, legal residents, visa holders and government employees, the simmering controversy over optical memory storage, a key anti-counterfeiting technology, is heating up.

The dispute over security technology for the People Access Security Service (PASS) card and other passport substitutes issued by federal trusted-traveler programs has broad implications. The outcome likely will affect not only the millions of documents issued under those programs but also millions of other federally mandated credentials.

The dispute involves the Homeland Security Department's choice of close-range radio frequency identification for the border system. Critics say the department essentially ignored optical memory, which they say would provide an added layer of defense against tampering to the RFID chips.

Visual proof Optical memory technology is an anti-counterfeiting and anti-tampering technique that displays biometric data on the card surface via a laser image that border guards can compare to the traveler in front of them without using electronic equipment. Some manufacturers also make hybrid cards that use both RFID and optical memory.

Counterfeiting the PASS card is a particular goal for brokers who provide identity documents and financial services to international criminals and terrorists because the credential confers the right to drive and enter the country an unlimited number of times.

The PASS card program falls under the aegis of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), a progressively tightening array of identification rules for travelers arriving in the United States (

In addition to the PASS card and trusted-traveler programs, the technology dispute has affected the frequently delayed Transportation Worker Identification Credential for workers at seaports, airports, trucking terminals and other transportation-related sites.

Reps. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) and Christopher Carney (D-Pa.) joined 18 other House members in an April 25 letter to DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The lawmakers' letter ( includes detailed allegations of potentially crippling credential security risks in the PASS card program and three long-standing trusted-traveler credentials.

The 20 representatives who signed the letter charged that DHS and State have issued 400,000 trusted-traveler cards manufactured in China without security oversight. The two departments had not responded to the allegation as of press time.

In response to congressional criticism of the credential security technologies DHS and State have chosen, Bush administration officials noted that they carried out testing at Sandia National Laboratories with the help of the National Institute of Standards and Technology to ensure card security and counterfeiting resistance.

The dispute includes disagreements over how the departments evaluated ' or did not evaluate ' optical memory technology.

Optical memory technology has long been used by DHS' Citizenship and Immigration Services (CIS) for the green card permanent resident visa and so-called Mexican laser visa border crossing card without a single successful counterfeiting incident.

Congressional critics say the departments failed to give optical memory technology a fair chance.

During an April 16 hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee's subcommittee on border, maritime and global counterterrorism, Derwood 'Woody' Staeben, senior WHTI program adviser at State's passport services offices, said the Sandia tests didn't include optical memory technology because the PASS card request for proposals did not include a requirement.

'It was not offered, and it was not required,' Staeben said.

However, a team led by General Dynamics did include optical memory in its proposal, according to contract documents.

Considering that many federal biometric ID credentials will serve as access cards until electronic card reading devices are fully deployed, visual verification remains critical, congressional analysts say.

CIS recently renewed its commitment to the optical memory approach and signed a contract to obtain an advanced version from Lasercard.


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