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Border Control

Can RFID help keep terrorists and weapons of mass destruction from breaching our security?
By Courtney Macavinta
Feb 01, 2007—After the horror of 9/11, many people in the United States and around the world wanted to know: How did the terrorists slip past U.S. border controls? And how can the U.S. government keep terrorists—and their tools of destruction—out in the future? Worst-case scenarios loomed. What if terrorists were able to create new, more effective terrorist cells on U.S. soil? And what if they could use the global supply chain to sneak weapons of mass destruction into a major city with potentially devastating effects?

These concerns aren't far-fetched. The task of identifying who and what is entering the United States is daunting. Each year, roughly 23 million U.S. citizens travel back and forth between the United States and the bordering countries of Mexico and Canada; 15 million people visit the United States under the Visa Waiver Program; and millions more enter the country with a visa or to establish legal residency. And some 7 million containers pass through U.S. ports each year.


RFID and security experts alike say global cooperation is needed to truly improve border controls around the world.

Better screening and tracking of the people and cargo that move in and out of the United States each day has become a cornerstone of the post-9/11 security strategy. In addition to the creation of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a plethora of bills have been passed and initiatives spearheaded to ratchet up security—from the controversial Patriot Act to the Real ID Act, Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, Secure Freight Initiative, SAFE Port Act, Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, Homeland Security Act and Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism. Their aim, simply, is to keep terrorists and their weapons out and everyone else safe.

If only securing the United States and outwitting terrorists were as simple as passing legislation. To implement some of the measures called for, lawmakers and law enforcement officials are increasingly looking to technology—from databases to biometrics, satellite surveillance devices, radiation detection equipment and radio frequency identification—to help get the job done.

The U.S. government along with other countries is pioneering the use of RFID to enhance security in two primary areas: ports and passports. Proponents say if the goal is to better monitor the cargo and people entering U.S. borders, RFID technology is a good fit within a multilayered security system. "RFID is being looked at from the federal level to the local municipal level as an enabler technology for security, especially in the post-9/11 world," says Ellen Daley, vice president and research director for Forrester Research.

But using RFID to bolster security is controversial. There is concern that RFID tags and interrogators can't be solely depended on to improve the security of cargo, because some studies show they aren't tamper-proof. Privacy advocates also are concerned that RFID use in passports could actually hinder personal security by enabling identity theft or the illegal tracking of people.

Despite some controversy, the United States is integrating RFID into its security plans. And other countries are keeping a close eye on these developments to see if RFID can help secure their borders as well. RFID and security experts alike say global cooperation is needed to truly improve border controls around the world.

What's Entering the Ports?
Before 9/11, according to the DHS, "very few" containers entering U.S. ports were screened for terrorist-related risks. But amid fears that terrorists could try to hit major U.S. seaport cities with bombs—in particular, radioactive devices—hidden in cargo containers, the task of inspecting the 7 million or so containers that pass through U.S. ports each year has become a top priority, and $10 billion has been earmarked to strengthen port security alone.

Today, under the U.S. Container Security Initiative, customs officials are stationed overseas at more than 40 ports and are using "intelligence and cutting-edge technologies" to prescreen roughly 90 percent of the 17,000 containers that arrive at the country's 22 ports each day. The screening method for "high-risk" containers includes using "security criteria" to identify containers that may "pose a risk for terrorism," and requiring that manifest information be provided 24 hours prior to the sea containers' being loaded onto the vessel in the foreign port.
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