DHS installs RFID readers at Blaine ports
By Meg Olson
Blaine ports of entry are the first on the Northern border using new technology to ensure tighter identification requirements to enter the U.S. don’t lead to border congestion, and might even clear some of it up.
“Today’s advances represent a new way of doing business for travelers and for officers,” said Colleen Manaher, national director of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), at a November 18 ribbon cutting ceremony at the Pacific Highway port of entry. “We are creating a safer and more efficient border for the 21st century.”
State and federal officials celebrated the installation of radio-frequency identification (RFID) readers, new computer hardware and software that will allow faster processing of travelers carrying RFID-enabled identification.
“The port of Blaine is the first port on the U.S./Canada border which is up and running and we’re ready to go live today,” said Michelle James, director of the Seattle field office for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
All of the primary inspection lanes at Pacific Highway and Peace Arch crossings now have a system of switches and cameras and scanners that create a record of each vehicle that crosses the border. RFID readers will scan travelers’ identification before a vehicle arrives at the inspection booth, triggering a database record of identification information that will appear on the officer’s computer as travelers arrive at the booth.
The first RFID equipped lanes opened earlier this year at Pacific Highway on September 11.
James said the upgrades were a cornerstone of WHTI, which implements a congressional mandate and a 9/11 commission recommendation to tighten up control on documents proving citizenship and identity.
Under the initiative, all travelers entering the United States at land borders as of June 2009 will need to have secure travel documents.
“We face tremendous vulnerability,” James said, with travelers currently able to enter the U.S. with one of 8,000 different travel documents, including drivers licenses, birth certificates, naturalization papers, alien registration cards, tribal and military identification cards and passports.
“We use identity to keep dangerous people and ineligible people from entering our country,” James said. He added that even the most experienced inspectors, can’t check every traveler’s documents thoroughly, as required since January and keep traffic moving.
Under WHTI, travelers are limited to a passport or a pass card issued by the U.S. Department of State, an enhanced drivers license (EDL) issued by Washington state, or a trusted traveler program card – NEXUS, FAST, or SENTRI. Tribal members can continue to use tribal identification provided it includes a photo, and U.S. and Canadian children under 16 can still travel with a birth certificate.
“We realize this is an important social and cultural change,” James said, “but the payoff will be better security, and maybe even shorter lines. The pieces are now in place to reap the benefit of WHTI technology.”
G. Michael Rodgers, executive architect with Unisys, explained that while today officers either scan or manually enter identification information, under the new system they won’t even have to handle identification documents under most circumstances.
“It allows the officer to focus on what they should be focusing on,” he said. “No more focusing on the workstation. Focus on the traveler.”
Manaher added that the new computer software inspectors can now use to check identification information and query law enforcement databases represented the first important upgrade to the system since the 1980s.
“It provides the information much more readily,” James said. “You hold up the card, it populates the screen.”
The new technology could cut six to eight seconds off the inspection process, James said, depending on the number of travelers that have RFID-enabled identification and increasing as officers become more accustomed to the new system.
Manaher said that there are currently more than 500,000 new applications for the three trusted traveler programs being processed. NEXUS has already enrolled more than 500,000 members.
State department representative Trip Atkins said they had issued over 600,000 passport cards that are RFID capable. Book passports are WHTI compliant documents but are not readable by the RFID technology in place at land borders.
“Think about applying now,” Atkins urged travelers. “Fall is traditionally our slowest time.”
Washington was the first state to forge an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security and begin issuing enhanced drivers licenses that meet WHTI requirements and are RFID-capable.
“It’s cheap, it’s safe, and it fits in your wallet,” said Liz Luce, director of the Washington State Department of Licensing. Washington has issued 33,000 EDLs so far, and British Columbia has begun a pilot program of 500 EDLs.
“We would like to see more NEXUS participants, more EDLs, more passport cards,” James said. “That would speed up the entire process.”
With current primary inspection times averaging 35 to 40 seconds, it takes about an hour to process a line of 100 cars.
If every traveler in that line had RFID-enabled identification and the process shortened the inspection by six to eight seconds, the driver of the 100th car would cross that border about 15 minutes sooner. “It adds up,” Manaher said. “With a land border, seconds really count.”
Rodgers said they estimate in San Ysidro, the largest land border crossing in the nation with 24 lanes, a two-second reduction in primary inspection time can cut an hour off wait times.
Better security and the potential for shorter lines comes with a cost. With a total budget of $352 million over two years, and 354 vehicle primary lanes scheduled to get the upgrades, the improvements are costing about $1 million per lane.
Chris Milowic, CBP’s director of information and technology for WHTI, said the bulk of the investment was in equipment, so improvements to Peace Arch would not need to be paid for again when the existing building is demolished. “There’s not a big loss of investment as they move the lanes,” he said.
There are also concerns about security risks to the individual and the system, due to the possibility of cloning cards or “skimming” information off them.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Washington and RSA laboratories found that “as deployed, Passport Cards and Washington State EDLs possess security and privacy deficiencies that have the potential to compromise border security or render it more fragile than necessary and desirable,” and recommends changes to the system.
Luce, however, disagreed.
“We feel very secure,” Luce said. “The governor has an enhanced drivers license.”
James said that no clones of RFID cards had been intercepted at local ports, but that they have been encountered in other areas. “We have seen some out there and they did not work,” she said.
The cards themselves do not have electronically accessible private information on them, but only transmit a binary code that triggers a database record.
The agency that issues the card controls the information in its own database and CBP will ping those systems to ask for individual records as travelers cross the border.
“The only real difference between the RFID system and the scanned documents today is not the information that’s there, it’s the system that is transmitting it,” Atkins said.