New Passport Card introduces new technology, new set of issues
By Zack Martin, Editor
Another type of travel document has joined the fray: the Passport Card. The ID card is being touted as an alternative to the traditional passport book, but is an additional technology that customs and border officials will have to be prepared to read.
The technology used in the card could become widespread as states bordering Canada and Mexico are considering issuing an enhanced driver license that contains the Passport Card technology. Washington State is already taking applications for the new ID document. But some say the technology used in the card is insecure and could lead to the tracking of citizens.
The Passport Card uses radio frequency identification technology. While RFID comes in many different flavors – some can be read from a great distance while others can only be read from less than an inch – the type chosen for this project is in the former category. It can be read from 15 to 20 feet and is designed to expedite travel over land border crossings.
The chip doesn’t contain information other than a number that acts as a pointer to a record on a secure database that will contain the cardholder’s photo and other biographic information. As a cardholder approaches the border crossing the card is placed on the dashboard and is read as he approaches the checkpoint. When the car pulls up to the border official he will already have reviewed the information and there is little left to do before the passenger can go on his way.
The need for the Passport Card came out of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. WHTI is part of the Intelligence Reform Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004, which requires citizens from the U.S., Canada and Bermuda to have a passport or other designated document that establishes the holders’ identity and nationality when entering the U.S. from a land or sea border crossing. The Passport Card is $45, cheaper than the $100 for a Passport book.
The RFID chip used in the Passport Card is similar to the technology being used in the NEXUS, SENTRI and FAST programs run by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. NEXUS is a program that enables pre-screened travelers from the U.S. and Canada to expedite their travel at airport and land border crossings. SENTRI is a program in place at the U.S./Mexican border enabling quicker crossings at border checkpoints. FAST is a program for truck drivers that have been prescreened to take advantage of fast security lanes when crossing northern or southern border crossings. There are 400,000 participants in these programs.
The U.S. State Department is issuing the Passport Cards. Applications were accepted as of Feb. 1 and the first documents will be sent out in the spring. General Dynamics Corp., Falls Church, Va., received the potential five-year, $99.3 million contract to issue Passport Cards for the State Department.
But states bordering Mexico and Canada may be the bigger market for these cards. As of mid-February, Washington State has booked more than 11,000 appointments for residents who want an enhanced driver license. Vermont and Maine are also reportedly considering enhanced driver license programs.
Washington began accepting applications for its program in late January, says a Washington Department of Licensing spokesperson. The new ID costs an additional $15 on top of the $25 license renewal fee.
To obtain one of the new licenses, applicants must undergo an interview in which they present a certified birth certificate and other identity documents. Confirming the residents citizenship is the new aspect of the process, says Andy Mallinger, director of product management at Digimarc Corp., the Beaverton, Ore.-based Company that is providing the driver licensing systems to the state. But it’s a provision that all states will have to meet if they are going to comply with Real ID.
After the resident is approved he receives the new ID card in about a week, the spokesperson says. The enhanced documents are produced at Digimarc’s central processing facility.
While the Passport Card is similar to the NEXUS, SENTRI and Fast programs, customer and border officials will also have to be prepared to read other identification documents as well. Electronic passport, traditional passports and Permanent Resident Cards, or Green Cards, all use different technologies.
While traditional passports will eventually be replaced by ePassports there is some question as to why Homeland Security decided not to use the contactless technology used in the new passports, says Randy Vanderhoof, executive director at the Smart Card Alliance.
“It’s forcing the creation of duplicate infrastructures at the border to read these new documents while there are already 15 million people who have ePassports,” he says.
“The insanity of this is considering what will happen at the border,” Vanderhoof says. “Some people will have ePassports, some will have traditional passport, some will have enhanced driver licenses and some will have the new Passport Cards. You’re going to have to separate people as they queue up in line.”
Vanderhoof says the industry questioned the use of long-range RFID for this program.
“The information on that tag is free-read. It is not encrypted,” he says.
And while the only information available from the chip is just a serial number, it could still be used to track that individual without his knowledge, Vanderhoof says. For example, sensors could be set up in a business district to track where individuals are at different times of the day.
Washington State is combating this potential problem by giving cardholders sleeves that prevent the card from being read, says Roland Fournier, senior product line manager at Digimarc.