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GAO Report Highlights RFID Weaknesses in US-VISIT

Citing low read rates of an RFID system that US-VISIT is testing, as well as other concerns, the Government Accountability Office wants an updated report on the goals and progress of the program.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Dec 21, 2006A new report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the United States Congress, concludes that "strategic, operational and technical challenges" are hampering the Department of Homeland Security's plans for its U.S. Visitor's Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) program initiatives at U.S. land ports of entry (as opposed to air and water ports). The 94-page report points to the low performance of an RFID system that has been tested at select land borders, where some categories of non-U.S. visitors are issued RFID-enabled entrance forms, called I-94a forms.

Each passive UHF RFID tag carries a unique serial ID number linked to the visitor's digital fingerprints, photos and other personal information taken when the visitor enters the country and saved in the US-VISIT database (see Homeland Security to Test RFID). The US-VISIT program is designed to tighten security at U.S. borders, and to record the movement of non-U.S. citizens across those borders, in an effort to protect the country from terrorist attacks.

Visitors issued the RFID-enabled entrance form must carry it with them as they exit the country. Since the technology is still being deployed as a test, there is no penalty issued to those who present their form so it can be easily read as they exit. Interrogators are installed at the car exit lane and pedestrian exit corridor at the land borders. Customs officials do not stop persons (whether under the US-VISIT program or not) as they leave the country, but RFID interrogators are supposed to read the RFID tag in the form.

The goal of reading the form's tag is to let the DHS identify anyone who has not left the country when the amount of time they can stay in the United States has expired. The GAO report shows that at some ports, the system showed very poor RFID read rates. At a pedestrian exit, for instance, only 67 percent of the tags carried by a test group of exiting visitors were successfully read. At the Thousand Islands Bridge border station in New York, the system reads only 4 percent of the tags for visitors in cars as they passed through the exit gates.

Jarrod Agen, a DHS spokesperson, says the RFID performance statistics cited in the report are more than a year old, and that US-VISIT has made significant improvements since then. One reason for the improvements, he explains, is a campaign encouraging visitors leaving by car to hold the tagged I-94a forms up to their car windows as they drive through the border's exit lanes so readers can detect them, and for those leaving on foot to hold the form out as well. Among visitors who follow these recommendations, current read rates of the forms recorded at exit land border lanes range from 64 to 95 percent, according to the DHS. Among those who do not make an attempt to ensure readability of the tag, read rates are still low—14 to 46 percent—for those leaving in vehicles, because the metallic car bodies tend to interfere with the RF signals.

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