TWIC enrollment begins, but biometrics lag behind

Despite welcome news that the Transportation Security Administration had, after delays, begun enrolling workers in the Transportation Workers Identification Credential (TWIC) program this month, questions about the biometric information on the cards remain unanswered.

TSA plans to begin issuing the TWIC cards at 12 ports by the end of November. Ultimately, they will be used at thousands of locations and be mandatory IDs for 750,000 to 1.5 million people who work in secure areas of U.S. ports.

But it could be several years before Coast Guard officials begin fully using biometric readers to scan and check the IDs because officials decided to install the readers on a separate schedule. The slower schedule is necessary because of challenges in developing readers that can work in a maritime environment and not come in contact with the cards.

In September TSA published the National Institute of Science and Technology’s working requirements for the TWIC biometric-card readers.

“The standards just came out for the first time, and this is new technology,” said Edward “Kip” Hawley, TSA’s administrator, at a hearing today before the House Homeland Security Committee. “There is nobody else on Earth that has had components as advanced as this.”

But some lawmakers want to know why it took so long to come up with the standards and are concerned that the decision to break the program’s deployment into phases means more delays.

“The concern of the committee is that the five-year rollout is done, [and] now we have another two, two and half years before the reader is complete, and so it’s an eight-year process,” said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the committee’s chairman.

“Would we have like to have had it sooner? Absolutely, but we are getting it right,” Coast Guard Rear Adm. Brian Salerno said in his testimony.

Lawmakers also questioned the effectiveness of relying on guards rather than electronic readers to look at IDs.

“What I’m having a hard time understanding is, why do we not want to get the readers as quickly as possible,” said Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.). “It seems like a major flaw in what you’re doing.”

The Los Angeles; Long Beach, Calif.; Brownsville, Texas; New York and New Jersey port authorities and a cruise line in Annapolis, Md., will start test programs with the readers, as required by the 2006 SAFE Port Act.

Still, port security officials say how often and at what points the biometric portion of the credential will be used are still unclear.

“Regrettably, the Coast Guard still hasn’t answered a number of critical policy questions, the answers to which could have significant impact on port operations, our cost to implement the TWIC program and the card reader manufacturers’ willingness to participate in the program,” said Bethann Rooney, manager of port security at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, in written testimony.

“These policy decisions must be made before the pilot projects begin so that they can be adequately tested and evaluated during the pilot projects,” she added.

The Coast Guard is responsible for enforcing the TWIC program but may work with local authorities and other federal agencies, officials say.

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