This new PASS card will have a radio antenna embedded into the plastic that transmits a code unique to the cardholder. The signal is picked up by the immigration agent's computer, and the traveler's photograph and biographical information in the DHS database pops up on the screen. The new IDs available to U.S. citizens only will speed up cross-border traffic while making it more secure, says Bob Mocny, the acting director of DHS's U.S. VISIT program, which designs ways to move frequent travelers through immigration lines more quickly. Mocny confirmed that DHS had chosen the radio transmitter technology, called RFID, for use in the new cards. Separate lanes will be set up at land border crossings for cardholders who have gone through a voluntary pre-screening process. Similar pilot programs have already issued around 200,000 RFID-embedded cards to frequent travelers along the Mexican and Canadian border, but DHS officials are designing the PASS card program for tens of millions of eligible Americans.
DHS officials have been quick to point out that the card isn't actually sending any personal information through the air. But the fact that the antenna could be activated remotely from 30 feet away, while it's still in your wallet and without your knowledge, has privacy experts and civil liberties watchdogs concerned. Before the decision was made, the ACLU issued a statement last month warning against the use of RFID for this purpose, saying that the radio transmitters would be a target for identity thieves. Also, the fact that RFID chips, if hit with the right frequency, reveal the location of travelers could be abused to track movements, say critics.
Still, the only information that will be stored on the card's radio transmitter chip, according to DHS, will be a serial number. And that number would then unlock a personal file inside a secure government database to be displayed to an immigration agent.
DHS officials say they are atuned to privacy concerns and can put into place procedures that will protect the information of the card carrier. "A lot of creative things can be done with that number in a spy novel," says Kathy Kraninger, director of DHS's newly created Screening Coordination Office, which will manage the program. But in reality, she says, it will be exceedingly difficult for a potential identity thief to crack the government computer and match up the number to extract your information.
However, to prevent any potential abuse, DHS is considering issuing a protective metallic sleeve that would interrupt the signal when a traveler isn't near the border crossing; DHS could also program the number to constantly change to make it harder to match. Kraninger, for her part, is betting millions of Americans won't mind having a government-issued radio transmitter in their pockets if it'll save time at the border. Hundreds of thousands of Americans use the same technology every day in their cars to drive through the fast lanes at tollbooths. "It's the same risk people use in other contexts," she says, "like the use of an EZpass."