By Jonathan Krim Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 5, 2004; Page E01
Government contractors hope a mix of new and existing technologies will better identify foreigners entering the United States through thousands of miles of land borders, without causing backups that stretch halfway to the ocean.
One key ingredient is a rapidly emerging but controversial technology known as RFID, or radio frequency identification, which companies are increasingly using to remotely track products. Border stations would use RFID-equipped identity cards to verify fingerprint information, but experts say the initiative faces daunting challenges, from cost to concerns about enforcement.
On Tuesday, the Department of Homeland Security announced that Reston-based Accenture LLP won a contract worth as much as $10 billion to add border crossings to the government's five-month-old program of fingerprinting and photographing visitors who arrive at airports and seaports.
By extending the program to land border stations, the agency aims to create a database of visitors that can help U.S. authorities keep out, detain or possibly monitor suspected terrorists or criminals.
Under the system used at U.S. airports and seaports since the beginning of the year, visitors have their fingers scanned to match fingerprints given when they applied for their visas to enter the country. U.S. Customs officers can use that opportunity to check the visitor against watch lists or other databases.
But such checks would slow border crossings by land to an unacceptable crawl. In 2002, land crossing stations processed 238 million non-U.S. citizens.
Large amounts of U.S. business and trade are dependent on tens of thousands of daily crossings at the Mexican border. Nearly 7 million Mexican nationals -- workers, deliverymen or business owners -- have what are called border crossing cards, which allow them entry into the United States for 72 hours and restrict them to certain distances from the border.
These visitors make an average of 285,000 crossings a day. For them, the Accenture team plans to create a version of the E-ZPass toll-booth system, which employs RFID technology on highways including Interstate 95. A holder of an E-ZPass device can zip through designated toll-booth lanes, where electronic scanners "read" the pass and automatically deduct the cost of the toll from the user's account.
Similarly, adding RFID would allow crossing-card holders to move through border checkpoints more quickly than other visa holders, who would be subject to the same fingerprint and photo scans used at airports. Crossing-card holders account for a little less than half of all crossings a year.
The existing crossing cards are issued by the State Department and include fingerprint data. But typically, crossing guards don't require a fingerprint scan to match to the card; they simply see the photo that pops up on a monitor and make a visual match with the card holder.