February 28, 2006

U.S. Homeland Security Delays RFID Plan

By Evan Schuman, Ziff Davis Internet

Wal-Mart isn't the only major early RFID backer to have cooled its RFID enthusiasm lately. One of the most anticipated RFID trials was at the Department of Homeland Security, which last year made a move to use super-beefed-up RFID devices track all U.S. ports of entry.

That plan has been placed on hold recently as the government "is trying to determine what technology we are going to use," said Bob Richards, the Homeland Security Department contracting officer assigned to this particular RFI (request for information).

The proposal itself—which was never widely reported—wanted RFID tracking capabilities so that it could locate and identify a tag that was inside a "car, truck or bus" from 25 feet away, while the vehicle was driving as quickly as 55 mph. "The accuracy and reliability goals of the data capture process are 100 percent," the RFI statement said.

Commented one vendor involved in the process, who requested anonymity: "Yeah, and I think they believe in Tinker Bell, too."

The move worried some privacy advocates. Although the RFI said that "privacy of travelers shall not be compromised," its specifications also included details that seemed to undermine that instruction.

"The Government requires that [an RFID device] be read under circumstances that include the device being carried in a pocket, purse, wallet, in traveler's clothes, or elsewhere on the person of the traveler. The device must be readable when the traveler walks into a (Port of Entry) or crosses the border" at a Port of Entry, the RFI said. "Readers are located in doorways and in individual pedestrian and vehicle lanes to allow identification of where the token is read and to allow association of the token with the individual and, if applicable, the vehicle in which the token is carried."

Privacy concerns, however, didn't derail this RFID effort: For the moment, bureaucracy has.

Interviewed last week as the controversial takeover of some U.S. shipping terminals by a United Arab Emirates company was grabbing many of the day's headlines, contracting officer Richards said the RFID effort was moving along well when it was suddenly halted.

"We went out with the RFI and we did get a lot of responses in. We evaluated them and then the project just went on hold" in mid-December," Richards said.

The technology choice was only a small aspect, he said, with interdepartmental jurisdiction proving to be a much greater concern.

"Now it's also going to involve the State Department," he said.