Program Looks to Work Around Passport Rule for U.S. Border Crossings

By Renee Boucher Ferguson  |  Posted 03-28-2007
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security agreed to a pilot program with Washington state that could offer an alternative to the requirement that all U.S. citizens traveling between the United States and Canada (and other Western Hemisphere territories) present a valid passport—some of which will be the new RFID-chipped ePassport.

But the pilot program will replace the passport with an RFID-based driver's license.

The pilot program, if proven successful, is a potential work-around for the federally mandated Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative that requires citizens traveling between the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Bermuda by land or sea to present a valid U.S. passport.

While Washington's governor, who signed the deal with DHS March 23, is clearly trying to maintain a healthy flow of commerce and tourists across the Washington-Canadian boarder, issues with an RFID-chipped license could come into play.

"This pilot project is a way to boost security at our border without hampering trade and tourism," said Gov. Chris Gregoire, in a statement. "Our effort to keep our border crossing moving is particularly important with the upcoming 2009 World Police and Fire Fighter Games and the 2010 Winter Olympics and Paralympics in British Columbia."

Under the terms of the agreement, the state of Washington will develop an enhanced driver's license that will be loaded with information similar to what one would find on a passport: proof of citizenship, identity, residence, birth date and a unique identifying number. The new driver's license, which Washington residents can sign up for voluntarily, will also contain security features similar to those found on ePassport, according to a statement released by the governor's office.

Despite some security provisions put forth by the State Department to secure ePassports—anti-skimming and basic-access control, for example—many privacy and security advocates are dead set against the use of RFID in passports or any other ID documents, stating concerns over citizen tracking and data theft.

At the same time, the Washington pilot program is at odds with other driver's-license measures within DHS; mainly, DHS seems to be shying away from the use of mandating RFID through the Real ID Act.

Passed by Congress in 2005, the Real ID Act mandates that every state in the nation overhaul its driver's license ID card system by 2008. While the act requires real-time authentication for documents such as birth certificates and social security cards—which would require a massive, electronic, interoperable network—it also mandates states implement machine-readable technology.

To read more about the Real ID Act, click here.

While it was initially thought DHS would propose RFID as the go-to, machine-readable technology, proposed standards put forth by DHS March 1 suggested two-dimensional, bar-code technology instead. After a 60-day public comment period closes May 8, DHS will put out its official rules regarding the Real ID Act.

The Washington pilot program will have licenses in effect until at least June 2009, the deadline imposed by DHS' Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative.

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