December 15, 2005
 

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Posted: 12.03

Life in the Fast Lane

RFID powers border-crossing program.
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By George Moss




Next time you’re sitting in your car waiting in line to cross the U.S.-Canadian border, take a look around you. While you’re fiddling with your radio dials, leafing through a magazine or playing with your PDA, cars in the Nexus lane next to you likely are proceeding rapidly across the border and on to their business. Become a member of the Nexus program, and you too could find yourself in the fast lane.

What is Nexus, you ask? Developed jointly by the U.S. and Canada, it is meant to expedite border crossings by low-risk travelers. “We have thousands of low-risk travelers who cross the border frequently,” says Tom Campbell, Nexus program manager for the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “We know them. They know us.” Both governments knew there was a way to speed up the border crossings, where lines can grow and blood pressure can rise.

RFID to the Rescue

After considering a number of possibilities, U.S. immigration officials, who are now part of the new Homeland Security department, selected a system that relies on the backbone of Intermec’s Intellitag radio frequency identification, a technology known as RFID. First piloted at a small town in Port Huron, Mich., the system now is being rolled out to every major trade corridor across the countries’ mutual border. Nexus currently is operational in the Pacific Northwest, Detroit, Mich., and Buffalo, N.Y.

Here’s how it works: participants sign up for the Nexus program at enrollment centers set up adjacent to major border crossings. Each participant is fingerprinted, gets his or her photo taken and completes an enrollment form. After a background check, the participant is notified that the application has been approved and is called in for a personal interview. Successful applicants receive a Nexus identification card about the size of a credit card.

Embedded in the card are a computer chip and a tiny RFID antenna. With that card, a Nexus program participant can access specially designated crossing lanes. Once in the lane, he or she holds the card up to an RFID reader positioned in front of the inspection booth. The reader flashes the participant’s photo and information onto a computer screen inside the booth. The inspector verifies that the photo on the screen matches the vehicle occupant and, if all checks out, authorizes the car to proceed.

Only vehicles with all-Nexus-cleared participants are allowed into the Nexus lanes. If there is more than one Nexus participant in the vehicle, the reader and screen can display several photos for visual identification at once. If crossing the border with someone who is not a member, travelers have to go through the regular crossing system.

The transaction takes significantly less time than clearance through the standard lanes. A typical Nexus inspection takes less then 5 seconds to complete. Regular inspections can take long minutes as travelers answer a litany of security questions.

The system seems simple, but powerful security capabilities are built in. The original background check limits program participants to those who have no criminal history, those who have no immigration, customs or agriculture violations and those who are otherwise admissible to Canada or the United States through regular crossings.

More than 50,000 people are enrolled in the program so far, and the enrollment centers are processing applications at a fast clip. In the months since it was installed, the Nexus program has dramatically cut crossing times for enrollees, and it has helped ease the workload of border agents already stretched by newly tightened security requirements, giving them more time to spend on higher-risk activities.

The result is a system that is of benefit to both border inspectors and Nexus participants. Because the fast lane is where you want to be. •



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