-- Agents along the Canada and Mexico borders are using a controversial new machine that can "read" the personal information contained in some government-issued ID cards — such as passports and driver's licenses — as travelers approach a checkpoint.
The Homeland Security Department says the new practice will tighten security and speed the flow of traffic. Privacy advocates say the technology could make Americans less secure because terrorists or other criminals may be able to steal the personal information off the ID cards remotely.
"There's this strange rush to a fancy or shiny new technology," says Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The cards "are quite vulnerable" to being cloned or having their codes broken.
Machines are in place at five crossings — Blaine, Wash.; Buffalo; Detroit; Nogales, Ariz.; and San Ysidro, Calif. — as part of the government's requirement that anyone who crosses the border must show a passport or other government documents proving citizenship and identity. The machines are being activated in Buffalo today; machines in Blaine and Nogales are in use; the rest will be on line over the next couple of months.
The new technology is being used in conjunction with new government passports, passcards and driver's licenses embedded with computer chips that contain the holder's name, date of birth, nationality, passport or ID number and a digitized photo. The personal data can be "read" by a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) machine as the person approaches a border-crossing checkpoint.
By the time a car stops at the Customs booth, the agent will have the photos and information of everyone in the car. If a name is on a watch list or database, the person will be taken in for questioning. The system will be "more efficient," says Thomas Winkowski of Customs and Border Protection.
Privacy-rights advocates warn that terrorists or other criminals can use their own machines in a process called "skimming" to read the information from as far as 50 feet. Consumer privacy expert Katherine Albrecht says the chips create the "potential for a whole surveillance network to be set up." She says police could use them to find criminals, abusive husbands to find their wives, and stores to track customers.
Homeland Security says the chips are made not to reveal personal information to machine readers — just a code, that then shows the information on the border agents' screen. The cards also come with protective sleeves for when they're not in use.
The border crossing ID requirement takes effect in June. So far, 600,000 State Department passcards and 40,000 embedded licenses from Washington state and New York have been issued.