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Radio Transmitters May Speed Border Crossings

Associated Press
Wednesday, January 26, 2005; Page A19

NOGALES, Ariz., Jan. 25 -- U.S. officials want to see whether the technology that speeds cars through highway toll plazas and identifies lost pets can unclog border crossings without compromising security.

Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday that the government will begin testing radio frequency identification (RFID) technology at this crossing and four others by midsummer.

The Border Patrol's Jose Gatelum verifies an identity in Nogales, Ariz. (Tom Hood -- AP)

Weeding out terrorists, drug dealers and other criminals from shoppers, truckers and tourists who regularly pass through border crossings takes time. The technology is designed to reduce the wait while giving authorities more information on who is coming into the country and who is leaving.

"We do not keep track of who enters this country," Hutchinson said while standing in an inspection booth at a crossing used each year by 5.4 million pedestrians and 3.9 million vehicles. "We need to have a comprehensive system, and that's what our pilot [test] will do."

Currently, foreign visitors at some of the busiest land border crossings in 10 states are fingerprinted as part of the government's new screening system. The system, called US-VISIT, scans fingerprints and photographs of the visitor's face into a computer, which are compared with federal agencies' criminal databases.

With the radio frequency technology, people or objects are identified automatically and swiftly. That allows vehicles outfitted with the technology to zip through toll plazas without stopping. People and vehicles still will have to stop at border crossings, but if their identifying data produce no red flags, they will get a cursory check rather than lengthy questioning.

The chip with the identifying information would be placed in a document, such as the State Department-issued border crossing cards for those who regularly make short trips across the Mexican border.

The chip is attached to an antenna that transmits a signal to a handheld or stationary reader, which converts the radio waves into a code that links to identifying biometric information in a computer database read by border agents.

The technology has been in use for years in systems for toll collection, equipment tracking, merchandise tags and pet identification. Unlike bar codes, the radio frequency chip does not need to be oriented before a scanner for reading but need only be within transmission range, 18 to 30 feet.

Jay Stanley, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union, said he is concerned the technology will infringe on privacy rights.

But Nogales Mayor Albert Kramer said such a system has long been needed to make the border system more efficient.

Officials said that by July 31, testing is expected to be underway in Nogales; Alexandria Bay, N.Y.; and Pacific Highway and Peace Arch in Washington state.

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