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High-tech border card needs best technology

Border towns such as Buffalo and Niagara Falls should know soon whether they can relax for a while about needing passports or special cards to go back and forth to Canada.

Thanks to Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, D-Fairport, a delay in that requirement until June 1, 2009 is in the homeland security spending bill likely to be adopted this summer.

Even so, there are strong signs that a passport or some sort of Star Trek card is going to be required of every teen and adult by the end of this decade. The indicators come from the ferocious fight by vendors over the billions of dollars in economic patronage that will come out of this deal.

Another ominous portent is that Rep. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, is still the only member of the House or Senate who says no new ID should be required to come here from Canada.

The technology unswervingly favored by the Bush administration is called RFID, for Radio Frequency Identification Device, or "vicinity RFID" by some.

Some of its components are from Asia, brokered through well-connected American vendors.

The Homeland Security and State Departments insist RFID is to be used as the technology for its PASS card, the wallet-sized substitute for a passport showed at the border by travelers.

Last December, the government posted a rule for public comment announcing the PASS card technology would be Radio Frequency Identification Devices.

Our leaders were oblivious then, as they are now, to the many civil rights and operational criticisms that have been leveled at RFID technology. Congress's investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office, produced four reports in the three years leading up to the posting of the government rule saying that RFID does not work properly and/or it invades Americans' privacy.

To cross the border, the driver would lay on the top of the dashboard the RFID cards for those in the car. They would be "read" by an electronic device mounted on a crane as far as 20 feet away. Then a U.S. inspector matches passengers' faces with those appearing on his screen.

Here are some of the problems with it: It can be altered; the RFID card can be read by any covert off-the-shelf device through one's clothing.

Any Big Brother can track your movements even when RFID is in your coat pocket in a store, a strip joint or a motel room. Right out of Orwell's "1984."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., said the RFID plan was based on "guesswork" and urged a pilot trial be done to test the many complaints that GAO and others have raised.

Representatives for a competing system, Smart Card, met with media and congressional officials last week. Smart Cards, they claim, have none of the functional or privacy issues of RFID, and can be made for as little as $4 apiece.

Smart Card has all the personal identification data embedded in it that RFID has. Among the differences are that Smart Card is read by touching or passing it within inches of a "reader" device, and all its special codes are scrambled.

This means the Smart Card's info cannot be read remotely and cannot be understood by any unauthorized agency, its proponents say.

The most troubling thing the Smart Card advocates said was that they have been asking the Bush administration for side-by-side trials with RFID for a year and a half, and were told no dice. The Smart Card technology has been used for ID purposes by the Defense Department since 2003.

Also unsettling is the presence high in the administration's-decision making chain of a Bush appointee who was a former executive in a firm that partners with other companies on RFID technology.

Homeland Security declined to comment.


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