Tech groups divided over border-crossing cards

While members of Congress have hit the campaign trail for August, the technology group AeA is campaigning in Washington for the latest legislative initiative to settle a dispute over border-crossing technology.

AeA on Monday sent a letter to Capitol Hill asking members to support an amendment to the fiscal 2007 spending bill for the Homeland Security Department. The amendment by border-state Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, would specify that the "smart cards" for the border comply with a standard called ISO 14443.

The cards would contain chips readable at a distance of 10 centimeters, something privacy advocates want. The department favored ultra-high-frequency RFID readable at 30 feet.

The Leahy-Stevens amendment also would delay the program until June 1, 2009, to identify travelers going through Canada, the United States and Mexico. Leahy called the Western Hemisphere travel initiative for which the cards would be used "a train wreck on the horizon" and said time is needed to fix the problems.

In the letter, AeA chief Bill Archey said the people-access security services cards, or PASS cards, read at shorter distances would help protect both security and privacy, and would mean that all versions of U.S. citizenship credentials use the same standards.

But technology groups are not united. The Information Technology Association of America sent a letter to congressional leaders before the August break, expressing concern about the PASS cards complying with a specific technology when technology changes so rapidly.

"I think the Leahy-Stevens amendment and the AeA letter are focused on the wrong things," said Jennifer Kerber, the homeland security director for ITAA. "You don't get the highest level of privacy and security by mandating a technology."

Tim Heffernan, the director of government relations at Symbol, added: "There's just such promise to this technology, and to limit it to one subset just doesn't make sense. It seems almost greedy."

He said privacy concerns could easily be fixed by tying the data on a person to a number, much like car license plates.

"We don't advocate putting personal information on a chip," Heffernan said. He said AeA and others argue that the short range "guarantees ID thieves are thwarted. That's not true."

He also argued that smart-card technology will cause traffic jams at the borders because the passes will have to be placed near card readers.

But Marc-Anthony Signorino, the director and counsel for tech policy at AeA, said traffic jams will happen anyway when the cars line up to speak to border inspectors.

Signorino also said the amendment is not a mandate. "If [Homeland Security] or the secretary of State wants to use a different standard, they can. They just have to justify it," he said.

He said during planned meetings on Capitol Hill, AeA will note that the technology standard and all the tools are non-proprietary. "What we'll help conferees understand is this is good for competition. It is good for national security, and it is good for protecting personal privacy. It's a triple play."

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