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Washington Examines RFID for Licenses

A special license could smooth traffic between the United States and Canada, but the use of RFID is not guaranteed.
By Claire Swedberg
Mar 27, 2007Washington Governor Christine Gregoire approved a house bill Friday, March 23, authorizing the piloting of a specialized driver's license for border crossings between Canada and Washington State. The state's Department of Licensing will spend the next month or more reviewing the potential of radio frequency identification and other possible technology options for the new driver's license, which would allow visitors returning to the United States from the Canadian border by car to present the license rather than a passport. The state expects to run a pilot by January 2008.

U.S. citizens reentering the United States from Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean or Bermuda—by land or by sea, including ferries—may be required to present a valid U.S. passport starting January 2008, according to Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) requirements. With the enhanced driver's license, known as the Identicard, American citizens would have an alternative to the passport.

Gregoire's approval of House Bill 1289 now authorizes the Department of Licensing to work with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to make recommendations about the new card, including its appearance and, perhaps most importantly, the kind of technology it will use. That technology is likely to be RFID, says Governor Gregoire's policy advisor, Antonio Ginatta. The Department of Homeland Security is already using RFID in its NEXUS card. NEXUS is a voluntary card issued to both American and Canadian citizens who frequently cross the border and are considered low security risks.

However, there are other alternatives to RFID that could be considered as well, Ginatta says. And if the agencies do recommend RFID, he adds, they will still have to decide what type of RFID (what frequency and standard). Once the recommendation is made, Gregoire will offer his final decision, he says.

What the governor's office does know is that the cards would include a unique identification number, and that the state of Washington would manage a database where data specific to that number—name, residency, age and so on—would reside. It could also link to other data, such as criminal history of the card holder.

The pilot is scheduled to run from January 2008 until mid-2009, Ginatta says, "with every intention of going to a permanent deployment." RFID or other contactless readers would be in place at the Blaine Washington Peace Arch border crossing, as well as in Port Angeles where ferries arrive from Canada.

Washington is not the only state reviewing the specialized driver's license, according to Ginatta. Michigan is also interested in using a similar card, but has not yet enacted any legislation. Washington has an active border crossing. About $35 million worth of goods travel both ways daily through the U.S.-Canadian border crossing at Blaine. Not only does the state have an interest in encouraging tourist traffic in both directions across the border, but the Winter Olympics of 2010 in Vancouver, B.C., are expected to draw many visitors from both sides of the border as well, which would make the specialized license an advantage for many Washington residents.

With the pilot, U.S. citizens and residents of the state of Washington can purchase the specialized license for $40. Upon signing the bill, Gregoire said the card would not only preserve the cross-border flow of trade and tourism, but increase border security. Currently, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents have a wide variety of documents and forms they must examine when people cross the border, including birth certificates, driver's licenses and military IDs. A license equipped with RFID or a similar technology would provide quick access to the data of each individual passing through the border.
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