Quick-scan passport cards proposed for some hemisphere travel

The State Department on Tuesday proposed that Americans traveling frequently between the United States and Canada, Mexico, Bermuda and the Caribbean, use passport cards that can be easily scanned to help quicken the pace of travel and trade.

The cards could contain Radio Frequency Identification chips readable from up to 20 feet away, the proposal, published in the Federal Register, said. Such cards could be distributed and put into use as early as January 2008, the notice said.

The cards would "assist [the Homeland Security Department] in expediting the movement of legitimate travel within the Western Hemisphere," because machines could read them from a distance, the proposal stated.

Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Ralph Basham said the cards would help government "quickly make critical decisions about travelers entering or re-entering the United States."

Currently a driver's license and a birth certificate serve as sufficient identification to enter the United States by road or by boat. But to better secure the borders, the 2004 Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act mandated stronger forms of identification. The concept of the proposed cards is not new; credit card companies and retailers have offered customers the opportunity to switch to RFID payment methods, which speed up the checkout process.

Nonetheless, the American Civil Liberties Union has taken a stance against them, saying that the RFID chip as planned is susceptible to third-party access and has insufficient safeguards against fraud.

"[Card] readers are cheap" and easy to locate, said Barry Steinhardt, the ACLU's technology and liberty program director. "It [would not be] hard to clone [the tags]" to dupe the Homeland Security Department's card scanners, he added.

In its proposal, the State Department said the cards - when not in use - could be stored in a sleeve that will "protect [them] from unauthorized access." DHS spokesman Jarrod Agen said the protective sleeves "[prevent] transmission of the vicinity RFID signal" to an unauthorized third party.

The State Department referred questions to DHS, and DHS officials could not say by late Wednesday afternoon how much it would cost the government to implement the proposal.

Passport card applications would cost $20 for an adult and $10 for a child. There would be a $25 "execution fee" for processing both a card and traditional passport, the proposal stated.

Should travelers be too concerned about the RFID cards to want to partake, there is a simple solution, Agen said: "Travelers can elect to use a traditional passport if they so choose."

The comment period ends on Dec.18; comments can be submitted electronically at Regulations.gov.

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