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RFID Employed Against Terrorism

Pilots and programs overseen by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security show how RFID technology can speed the movement of people across boarders while reducing the threat of terrorism.
By Bob Violino
Nov 24, 2003—The U.S. Department of Homeland Security—a conglomeration of 22 previously separate and disparate domestic agencies—is charged with protecting the nation against threats to its safety. The department’s initial priority is to protect the United States against terrorist attacks similar to those of Sept. 11, 2001. To do this, DHS agencies analyze threats and intelligence, guard U.S. borders and airports, protect the critical infrastructure and coordinate the response to emergencies.

It’s a daunting challenge, and the DHS expects to lean heavily on emerging technologies to help perform these critical functions. One of the technologies being deployed is RFID, which the DHS sees as useful for identifying people, vehicles and objects, such as cargo shipments. This enables the immigration and customs officials to move low risk people and shipments across borders quickly and focus more time and attention on those that deemed to be a higher risk.

Tom Ridge
Tom Ridge, the Secretary for Homeland Security, has highlighted the need to use RFID to secure cargo containers. And last week, the Bush administration announced plans to require the nation's largest shipping companies to install electronic detection tamper sensors and use reinforced metal seals on millions of cargo containers to reduce the risk of terrorists shipping a dirty bomb or other weapons into the United States.

Electronic seals have been around for a while. When they pass a reader, they automatically signal that the container was opened without authorization. Savi Technology, a Sunnyvale, Calif., provider of supply chain asset management and security solutions, recently introduced a product that goes a step further. The Savi Sentinel, a battery-powered RFID device that clamps to a standard intermodal shipping container, not only acts as a tamper sensor, it also monitors other sensors that report on the conditions and integrity of goods in the container (see Building a Smarter Container).

The department’s Customs and Border Protection Bureau is using RFID for several applications. One is a program called NEXUS, developed jointly by the U.S. and Canadian governments to expedite border crossings by thousands of low-risk travelers who drive across the border frequently.

NEXUS began two years ago with a pilot operation in Port Huron, Mich., and Sarnia, Ontario, and now includes sites in the Pacific Northwest, Detroit and Buffalo, N.Y. Participants sign up for the program at enrollment centers located near major border crossings. Applicants are fingerprinted, have their photos taken and fill out enrollment forms. After background checks for criminal history and for immigration, customs and agriculture violations, applicants are called in for interviews.

Successful applicants receive a NEXUS identification card embedded with a computer chip and RFID antenna. They can access a specially designated crossing lane, drive up to an inspection booth and hold the card up to an RFID reader positioned alongside it.
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