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Enhanced Drivers' License Eases Border Crossing for Washington State Residents

RFID-enabled drivers' licenses help residents cross the Canadian border quickly, without compromising federal security standards.

by / April 8, 2008

Since early this year, American drivers returning home across the United States-Canada border have been required to show a passport every time they pass. In Washington state, though, officials have given their residents another ticket across the border: an Enhanced Driver License (EDL) that meets new federal requirements for proof of citizenship.

With extra security features and a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag that's read remotely as drivers approach the border, the state license lets Washington residents re-enter the United States by land and sea at a fraction of the cost of a passport, and without carrying extra paperwork, making for a quick trip across the border into British Columbia.

From a management standpoint, the project is remarkable not only for its quick turnaround from early planning to issuance of the new licenses, but also for the close cooperation between state, federal and Canadian agencies. Over an 18-month period, at a project cost of $8.5 million, Washington state developed the nation's first state license that's also approved for land and sea border crossings, said Washington Department of Licensing (DOL) Spokeswoman Gigi Zenk. The EDL is a model for similar programs in a few other states, some of which plan to roll out their own EDL programs in mid-2008, according to officials at the Washington DOL and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Maintaining a Smooth Crossing
Until February 2008, American drivers returning to the United States could re-enter with a driver's license or other government-issued photo identification. The long-anticipated change requires printed proof of citizenship - even for children - for re-entry into the United States by land or sea. The change is just one piece of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative, a blanket policy change Congress enacted in 2004 in response to border security concerns raised by the 9/11 Commission, according to the DHS.

The deadline for the proof-of-citizenship requirement has been pushed back repeatedly in recent years, with passport offices around the country struggling to keep up with spiking demand for new passports. The new law is expected to tighten security along the United States-Canada border, but many are concerned the inconvenience of carrying the necessary documents - such as passports or birth certificates - and the $97 application fee for a new passport ($82 for children under age16) will complicate what had been a simple border crossing.

In Northern states, where business and tourism draw many people to and from Canada every day, the new requirements threaten to make the greatest impact. "Anybody who's grown up here is used to going across the border," Zenk said. Washington state and British Columbia are particularly concerned about a barrier to travel along the border when Vancouver, just across the Canadian border, hosts the 2010 Winter Olympics.

To maintain the smooth border crossing to which Washingtonians have grown accustomed, the state spent a year and a half working closely with the DHS, British Columbia officials and the company that manufactures the state's identification cards, to develop a state-issued driver's license that also serves as proof of citizenship at the border. Zenk said the state expects about 30,000 people to apply for an EDL in 2008. "All our research indicated that most people would be interested in doing this on renewal of their driver's license," Zenk said. An EDL costs $40 - $15 more than a regular license - to cover the extra cost of an in-person interview and additional document processing during the application process.


Inside the EDL
The EDL looks like a regular Washington driver's license, but it has a red banner across the top of the card and a machine readable zone (a more advanced version of the bar code) that officers can scan at the border, according to the Washington DOL. The licenses also include more subtle security features, said U.S. Customs

and Border Protection Spokeswoman Kelly Klundt. These include "the materials they're printed on, the inks, the holograms and the issuance process, which begins with vetting the DMV employees who will be issuing the licenses," Klundt said.

The issuance process for an EDL is one of the program's main security strengths. According to the Washington DOL, staff members involved in the EDL process must participate in special fraud document recognition training from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. Citizens also must interview in-person to receive an EDL, and provide proof of identity and citizenship documents, which are scanned, authenticated and saved in a state database.

The other novel development for the EDL is the RFID chip embedded in the license that allows officials to check a driver's identity even as a person pulls up to the border station. According to Zenk, the DHS insisted on the RFID to keep the border crossing moving quickly, as with similar "trusted traveler" programs administered by the DHS. Because the state is producing RFID-embedded licenses to be read at DHS-run border stations, the tags will continue to require close state and federal cooperation. According to Zenk, the RFID in the license will carry no personal data, only a reference number created by the DHS. Those DHS RFID readers at the border will pass that number along to the Washington DOL database, which then returns the driver's name, address and photo to the officers at the border station.

As in other programs involving RFID, the EDL sparked privacy worries among some Washington residents. People carrying an EDL may be concerned they're broadcasting personal information anytime they leave the house with the license in their pocket, Zenk said, adding that one of the biggest challenges has been this concern about privacy and the new technology. "We've gone to great lengths to tell people that the RFID chip doesn't have any personal information," she said. "DHS doesn't have direct access to our database."

Quick Fix, National Model

Making the EDL a reality required a massive reshuffling of priorities within the Washington DOL, new channels for personal and systems communication outside the department, and new technology in the license itself. "We got our marching orders from the governor to make this work," Zenk said. "Our agency basically reorganized itself to make this a priority, because it was changing the way we do business."

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire first discussed the possibility of an enhanced license with British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell at a summit in June 2006. A month later Gregoire sounded out U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on the EDL alternative, and by March 2007, the state had signed a memorandum of understanding with the DHS to go ahead with the project. "We did this in a very short 18-month period of time," Zenk said. "We're very proud of the fact that we were able to mobilize and get this done when we did." To keep business and tourism flowing freely between Washington and British Columbia, DOL officials knew they needed to have the project ready around the time the new proof-of-citizenship requirements took effect.

Just developing a model for the EDL - including the features necessary to satisfy Canadian and DHS officials - was a months-long process, but Bill Kehoe, CIO of the Washington DOL, said there was no way to proceed with the project without being sure all parties were satisfied with the plan. "That was a critical phase of the project," Kehoe said. "We couldn't have even gone forward without the approval of U.S. Homeland Security."

With a clear idea of the security features and procedures the EDL would require, Kehoe said the next step was building a project team that included some of his top management staff, and tasking them with an assessment of

the DOL's systems needs and a plan for making the project a reality. "We did a thorough requirements document, not just for the card but for all aspects of the project," Kehoe said, adding that the project blueprint grew to 60 pages, while the EDL team eventually included 19 IT staffers and five more contracted programmers.

The deliberate approach the team took during those first few months was a key to success. According to Kehoe, the EDL team on his IT staff was only together from August 2007 to January 2008, but detailed project planning helped them hit the ground running. "All that up-front work really helped our cause," Kehoe said.

To handle the demands of the new EDL program, the Washington DOL opened new channels with U.S. Customs and Border Protection computers. The DOL also needed to make sure the networks would communicate effectively as soon as a driver's RFID tag was detected near the border. The DOL team also addressed the document scanning and processing requirements at every interview office. Kehoe said his team outfitted 12 offices around the state with the scanners and document authentication software called for by the project's security specifications.

The RFID tag itself was another feature tackled by the technology team. Kehoe said Washington's driver's license manufacturer, Oregon-based Digimarc Corp., had never embedded RFID tags into licenses before. Before Digimarc could begin manufacturing the cards, the company needed the DHs's technical specifications for the proper frequency and wattage to program into the tag. Kehoe said the DOL contracted out a handful of its other technology needs to Digimarc, including document authentication, scanning and the facial recognition software that makes EDL applicants match up with the photo identification they provide at the interview.

"We worked very closely with the IT and business requirements," Zenk said. "They had to all walk hand-in-hand to make this work." While Kehoe's team implemented the technology, the rest of the DOL laid the groundwork for other major aspects of the EDL program.

Along with addressing citizens' privacy concerns related to the RFID tag, Zenk said the DOL worked with major trade and tourism stakeholders to build support. The state retooled labor agreements with DOL staff members, who are now required to handle citizenship documents. At the same time, the DOL worked with state legislators to build a legal framework for the EDL program, and with DHS officials to ensure the EDL would pass federal standards. "It's really not often where you see a state work with the federal government and make something work like this," Zenk said. "It was really about developing the systems and doing things right the first time around."

Washington hopes to be a model for EDL programs in other states. A November 2007 online seminar hosted by the Pacific NorthWest Economic Region - a partnership of northwest states and provinces - showcased Washington's EDL program for a few states and provinces. The DHS is working to install RFID readers at the nation's 35 busiest border crossings, according to Klundt, in anticipation of increased demand from federal "trusted traveler" programs and more state-issued enhanced driver's licenses.

Though Washington became the first state to roll out its EDL program in January, Klundt said similar programs are under way in Vermont, New York and Arizona, where state officials also have signed formal agreements to cooperate with the DHS on enhanced license programs.

"Arizona has been staying the course to be ready by summer," Klundt said. North Dakota, Montana, Kansas, California, Michigan and Texas have all shown an interest in the program, she said, noting that even those states without an international border may find an EDL program worthwhile because RFID-enabled licenses would be accepted at any land or sea border crossing into the United States, helping to keep traffic flowing smoothly through the border's tightened security measures.

"We want people to have options," Klundt said, "but we also want people to have RFID-enabled options."

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Patrick Michels Contributing Writer
Patrick Michels is based in San Francisco and Austin, Texas. He writes for Government Technology, Texas Technology and Emergency Management magazines.
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