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Kentucky facilty cranking out new Green Cards

In what some may see as an excessive burst of patriotism, tiny photographs of every U.S. president -- so small they can barely be seen -- are printed on every new U.S. permanent resident card issued to an immigrant authorized to live and work in the United States.

In fact, those presidential photos are not a demonstration of patriotism, but one of the latest steps U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a unit of DHS known as USCIS, has taken to make the nation’s new permanent resident cards, commonly called “green cards,” harder to counterfeit.

“There are a lot of attempts to counterfeit cards,” Chris Jensen, the senior director for homeland security programs at General Dynamics Information Technology, told Government Security News in a recent interview, recalling one alleged counterfeiting ring in Loudon County, VA, as but one memorable example. “We’ll never stop the counterfeiting attempts, but we can make it hard to pass off a card as authentic.”

Jensen ought to know. General Dynamics has been working with USCIS (and its predecessor agencies) since the mid-1990’s in the manufacture of green cards and other government identification cards. Last October, GD landed a $24.8 million task order from USCIS to manage identification card programs at a government-owned facility in Corbin, KY.

Along with its team member, LaserCard Corp. (a major card manufacturer recently acquired by HID Global), General Dynamics oversees the production of 1.5 to 2.0 million green cards each year; another 1.0 to 1.5 million cards for people with “temporary protected status”; 300,000 to 400,000 Transportation Worker Identification Credentials, called TWIC cards; and a slew of “Employment Authorization Documents,” known as EAD cards, according to Jensen.

GD provides production support and quality assurance services for the processes by which an individual’s name, personal history, photo, fingerprint and other data are applied to a specific plastic card.

This process occurs in a production facility in Kentucky that more closely resembles a “clean room” – with workers wearing white lab coats and footies – than a factory assembly line, explained Jensen.

GD currently oversees two separate systems at Corbin: one produces permanent resident cards for USCIS (and has additional capacity that could support a growth in the number of cards it churns out), and the other personalizes TWIC cards for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

There are several discrete stages in the production process. One includes adding personal data to the card through laser engraving, a significant improvement over traditional printing methods. “Earlier cards were not as counterfeit resistant,” said Jensen. “You can’t peel off a laser engraving.”

Another step involves encoding data on the green card’s optical stripe, an ultra-secure procedure based on LaserCard’s own proprietary technology, he added.

“The U.S. Green Card has set new standards in security and functionality for government programs worldwide,” Robert DeVincenzi, president of LaserCard, said last month, when the company won a new $8.6 million contract for optical security media cards. “It is the world's first implementation of optical security media for visual and data security and an RFID tag for accelerated border crossing, and it incorporates a host of security innovations.”

Another step involves placing data on the RFID chip embedded in each new green card, so it can comply with RFID requirements spelled out in the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI) developed by the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Bermuda. This RFID transmitter enables the card’s data to be read by government inspectors even before the cardholder reaches the official’s counter.

To thwart would-be counterfeiters, green cards now present some unique, personalized data in a way that offers a “tactical feel” to government inspectors, explained GD’s Jensen. “We have a raised area of these cards that provides the birthday of the user of the card.”

There are additional security features involving holographic images, “micro-text,” variable inks and other technologies that Jensen declined to describe.

"Redesigning the Green Card is a major achievement for USCIS," the agency’s director, Alejandro Mayorkas, said last May. "The new security technology makes a critical contribution to the integrity of the immigration system."

The enhanced features will better serve law enforcement, employers, and immigrants, all of whom look to the green card as definitive proof of authorization to live and work in the United States, said the agency at that time.

“Among the benefits of the redesign: Secure optical media will store biometrics for rapid and reliable identification of the card holder. Holographic images, laser engraved fingerprints, and high resolution micro-images will make the card nearly impossible to reproduce,” the USCIS announcement outlined. “Tighter integration of the card design with personalized elements will make it difficult to alter the card if stolen. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) capability will allow Customs and Border Protection officers at ports of entry to read the card from a distance and compare it immediately to file data. Finally, a preprinted return address will enable the easy return of a lost card to USCIS.”

The facility in Corbin, KY, cranks out millions of cards annually, but General Dynamics is constantly watching the horizon, to see if any new and bigger business opportunities are approaching. One of these, of course, is the alluring possibility that the U.S. Congress and the President might someday agree on sweeping immigration reform, which could transform overnight millions of “illegal immigrants” into millions of residents suddenly finding themselves on a long-sought path to eventual citizenship. Of course, such a piece of agreed-upon legislation may never occur, given the conflicting political pressures that have tugged at this immigration issue for decades.

Nonetheless, General Dynamics Information Technology, which is so deeply involved in the card production process, is keenly interested in this seemingly never-ending discussion. “Any legislative activity with regard to immigration reform would have an impact on card production,” Jensen told Government Security News.

If Congress decides to grant a special status to foreign-born current residents who did not enter the U.S. legally, that would probably necessitate the production of a new class of cards, he imagined. “If you’re ‘legal’ today, that doesn’t mean that your relatives back home are OK,” he observed. Thus, a new card would inevitably need to be created for individuals already living in the U.S..

“Our customer, USCIS, always wants to be prepared, so we do spend time thinking about this,” Jensen acknowledged. GD and its industry competitors probably wrestle with a variety of considerations.

First, how quickly would such a new program be implemented? “If it was phased in gradually, that wouldn’t be much of a challenge for the production infrastructure,” Jensen said. “But if the government needs millions of cards at one time, you would need more infrastructure.”

Second, what balance would the government customer strike between speed and security? “If you want me to put out 12 million cards with very few security features,” Jensen continued, “I can do that very quickly, but the more security features you need, the longer it takes.”

Finally, General Dynamics recognizes that it is not only production capacity for the plastic cards themselves, but the ability of the nationwide information technology system – which collects, processes and transmits mountains of personalized data to the card production center – which must be adequate to meet any sudden expansion in demand.

Beyond immigration reform, Jensen and his colleagues at General Dynamics see a big future in identification cards. Initiatives that TSA is undertaking to consolidate production processes for its various card programs (and perhaps its nationwide enrollment procedures as well), plus recent steps the federal government has taken to move HSPD-12 identification programs to the next level, all bode well for the future of this homeland security niche.


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