TSA ramping up smart card tech

The Transportation Security Administration plans to begin testing technologies this month for an ambitious program that will equip 15 million transportation employees with smart cards, officials said.

TSA will soon launch two regional pilot projects for its Transportation Worker Identification Credential system. TWIC will provide employees at airports, seaports, railways and other locations with secure access to buildings and systems. Through a single network of databases, it will enable quick dissemination of threat alerts and revocation of access.

"This is really the start for being able to have a nationwide secure transportation system," said Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the nonprofit Smart Card Alliance Inc.

Interest in smart cards — plastic IDs with embedded computer chips that were first developed in the 1970s — soared after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but progress slowed as Congress wrangled over the fiscal 2003 budget and as government officials awaited appropriations.

TWIC "suffered a tremendous delay," said Neville Pattinson, director of business development and technology for Schlumberger Smart Cards and Terminals, a potential system subcontractor.

However, TSA stayed the course. Last month, the agency — one of 22 recently moved to the new Homeland Security Department — won approval from the department's investment review board to proceed, according to Patrick Schambach, TSA's associate undersecretary for information and security technology and chief information officer.

Funding for the program, which received $35 million for pilot projects and prototypes in fiscal 2003, more than tripled to $127 million in the Bush administration's fiscal 2004 budget request.

Given the green light, the agency released a request for proposals in late March through the General Services Administration's Smart Access Common ID Contract, according to Chris Rhatigan, a TSA spokeswoman. BearingPoint Inc., EDS, Maximus Inc. and Northrop Grumman Corp. are eligible to respond, she said.

The technologies under consideration include cards that have a magnetic stripe, a two-dimensional bar code, a linear bar code, an optical memory chip or an integrated circuit chip, she said. Additionally, TSA will explore incorporating a digital photo in conjunction with each of those options.

"That's very complete," Vanderhoof said. It "should give them the ability to see how all those different technologies can work together. I believe there will be some combination."

Pattinson noted, however, that contactless and biometric technologies were absent from the list. The latter, at least, will be employed in the next phase, according to the agency's statement of objectives.

TSA will run the pilot projects at facilities in the Philadelphia/Wilmington, Del., and the Los Angeles/Long Beach, Calif., areas. Workers will participate on a voluntary basis and carry their existing cards as well as the test cards, Rhatigan said.

"They're trying to understand and learn and educate themselves," Pattinson said. "At the moment, the badges [TSA employees use] are plastic cards with photographs. There's very little security in that and they can easily be duplicated."

Following the four-month technical evaluation, TSA will conduct a prototype so agency officials can assess and refine the products. This phase will also encompass testing the broader infrastructure, including background checks, regional and central database development and interfaces, according to the statement of work.

Down the road, TWIC is slated to form the foundation of the Registered Traveler Program, which will allow certain credentialed and prescreened passengers to speed through security checkpoints in airports.

Right now, TSA is looking for technology "that's going to provide the most cost effective and secure solution," Pattinson said.

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Homeland security

Officials at the Homeland Security Department (DHS) are looking at smart cards as a way to provide secure access to buildings and systems for the department's 170,000 employees.

DHS wants to combine the best elements of programs currently in deployment, including those under way at the departments of Defense and State, as the basis for its own initiative, said Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the nonprofit Smart Card Alliance Inc.

The Transportation Security Administration — one of 22 agencies folded into DHS — will ultimately align its Transportation Worker Identification Credential system with DHS' model, Vanderhoof said.

All of those smart card efforts will be compatible with the General Services Administration's smart card specifications.

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