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DHS Nixes Use of RFID In Border Security Program

Technology's performance, accuracy found lacking

By Marc L. Songini
February 15, 2007 12:00 PM ET

The Department of Homeland Security is abandoning plans to use radio frequency identification (RFID) technology in a key part of its border security system after it failed to work as expected in a 15-month test.

A spokeswoman for the DHS border security program said the agency is now "exploring alternatives," such as biometric technologies, for tracking foreign visitors as they pass through checkpoints entering and exiting the U.S.

The agency tested the technology in an effort to improve its U.S. Visitor and Immigration Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program, created by Congress in Jan., 2004 to track foreign nationals within the United States. The US-VISIT spokeswoman said the agency hoped to use RFID technology to automate and speed up the process of getting an accurate record of who left the country.

A testing period from Aug., 2005 to last November found the technology wanting for multiple reasons, DHS officials said. DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff disclosed the failure of the technology on Feb. 9 in testimony to the Homeland Security Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

In his testimony, Chertoff cited a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, released on Jan. 31, that also found the RFID test to be a failure due to performance and reliability problems.

The agency tested the technology at five entry points on the borders of Mexico and Canada. RFID tags were added to I-94 immigration documents, which show an immigrant's country of origin and legal status in the U.S., and were to be read at the selected checkpoints. For the test, the tags were added to the documents of some 200,000 immigrants who entered the country at checkpoints near the five test sites, the spokeswoman said.

The RFID tagged documents were to be scanned as the visitor passed through a border crossing, and his or her exit from the country were recorded in a DHS database.

The GAO report found that during a one week period at one test site, only 14% of 166 RFID tags that crossed the border were read by scanners. The DHS had set a goal for the test of reading 70% of tagged documents crossing the border.

The GAO report also noted that even if RFID tags were read as they crossed the border, the DHS had no way to prove that the person carrying the document was the one to whom it was issued.

Rod McDonald, CIO of DHS Customs and Border Protection unit, said the agency had hoped the test would determine that chips stored in vehicles traveling at 40 miles per hour would be read.

"Unfortunately, the pilot was unsuccessful at reaching a reasonable read rate and for us to verify the exits," he said. "We're still interested in RFID, but just in that specific pilot we have to look for some alternative."

The US-VISIT spokeswoman said the agency is working closely with government and private-sector partners to deploy alternative, more viable, technology for the project. No schedule has been set for selecting the technology, she said.

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