Although the details of the RFID program are yet to be worked out, government and Accenture officials said the goal is to develop a card that could be automatically scanned to verify the fingerprint data as well.
In one scenario, the cardholder might need to place his or her finger on a certain spot on the card, which would activate the card so its data could be read by the scanner as the cardholder crossed the border. The card would use a radio signal, and an RFID tag does not require a direct line of sight to be read, as do the bar codes on consumer products.
"In theory, you can transmit biometric information using RFID . . . and you could fly by at 40 miles an hour, and it could be read" by a remote scanner, said Department of Homeland Security spokesman Dennis Murphy. That won't be allowed, of course, because a car might contain several people, all of whom must be checked.
Eric Stange, managing partner for defense and homeland security at Accenture, said RFID technology has "a lot of promise" in not only allowing fast verification, but in allowing information on the card to be shared with other databases. Stange said his firm, which will use several other technology companies as subcontractors, plans to build a system that would allow for technology enhancements, such as going beyond photographs to retina or iris scans.
"Conceptually, the idea is a very good thing," said K. Jack Riley, director of the homeland security program at Rand Corp. "But the land border is going to be much more difficult than the constrained environment of airports."
Riley wonders what will happen when the new system simply pushes terrorists or criminals to stop crossing at official outposts and make use of the hundreds of miles of unprotected border. Additionally, the program will operate at only 50 of the 165 border crossing stations at the end of 2004, with the rest due to be added by the end of next year.
Moreover, Riley said, even when the system detects people who have overstayed their visa status, there may not be enough enforcement officers to track them down.
Some experts are skeptical of the government's ability to effectively bring together all of the various stores of information from dozens of law enforcement agencies. In an ideal world, local police officers, airport officials and U.S. Customs officials could easily consult an integrated database of information to check on a potential suspect.
But such systems often are prone to errors.
"There's always some data that is just wrong," said David F. Kotz, a Dartmouth College computer science professor who specializes in security. Moreover, the government has a mixed track record in bringing together disparate databases.
In fact, DHS still has not completed a congressional mandate to merge various agency watch lists of suspects. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge has pledged completion of the project by the end of the year.
Privacy advocates also fear that RFID technology would be extended to monitor the movements of visitors after they enter the country. Such a system would require a series of electronic scanners capable of detecting and reading an RFID signal at long distances and is not currently contemplated, according to the government.
A 2002 General Accounting Office report also questioned whether RFID technology for homeland security was the most cost-effective technology for border security. Supporters said that the technology has been refined since then and that the price of the chips used in readers has dropped.
Staff writer Anitha Reddy contributed to this report.