U.S. Transportation Workers May Get Smart ID Cards

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After months of delay, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has finally taken the first steps towards issuing new smart card identity credentials to transportation workers around the country.

Earlier this week, the agency began enrolling about 6,000 port workers, longshoremen, truckers and other employees at the Texas port of Corpus Christi into its Transportation Worker Identity Credential (TWIC) program. Corpus Christi is the second port to begin the enrollment process. In mid-October, the Port of Wilmington, Del. became the first location in the country to start enrolling workers into the program.

Over the next few days several other ports, including Honolulu, Baton Rouge, La., Tacoma, Wash., and Beaumont, Texas will follow suit. About 1 million transportation workers at 147 ports nationwide are expected to be enrolled into the program by the end of 2008, according to a TSA statement released Wednesday.

TWIC was put in place by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to boost security at some 4,000 transportation facilities around the country after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Under the program, all workers at the nation's transportation facilities will be required to carry a DHS-issued smart-card credential if they want unescorted access to secure areas of buildings, ports and vessels. Workers who want to enroll for the card are required to undergo and pass a criminal background check before the tamper-proof biometric credential can be issued to them. According to the TSA, the cards will cost transportation workers around US$132, which is slightly lower than the original estimate of $150.

TWIC is being rolled out in multiple phases with the cards first issued to the maritime sector before being introduced at other transportation facilities. Also, it's initially only the biometric cards themselves that are being rolled out. The readers for actually reading and authenticating TWIC cards won't be in place for another two years or so at least.

Maurine Fanguy, program director for TWIC at the TSA, said the start of the enrollment process "marks a significant milestone" in the implementation of the smart credential program. Testifying at a hearing before the House Committee on Homeland Security on Tuesday, Fanguy said the TWIC program is moving towards its objectives "while making sound decisions focused on enhancing port security and a reasoned, phased-in program implementation approach."

Should Have Been Summer

Originally, workers at the 10 highest risk ports were supposed to have been enrolled and carded by July 1. But that deadline was pushed back because of the testing that the TSA and its enrollment contractor had to do before the systems were ready to go. "We have completed testing and have made significant advances in all aspects of the program," Fanguy said at the hearing.

Despite Fanguy's upbeat assessment of the progress that has been made so far, some committee members expressed their reservations about the TSA's ability to rollout the program as scheduled.

Bennie Thompson, the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security blasted the TSA for only just starting to roll out a program that had been mandated as long as five years ago. He also faulted the agency for significantly underestimating the number of workers at several ports who would need to get a TWIC. "The Department estimated that 30,000 workers would need to get a TWIC [card] in the Port of Houston. According to the Port of Houston, the real number is closer to 350,000," Thompson said, Similarly, the department's estimate of the number of workers at the Port of New York and New Jersey was just over 60,000, which the actual number was closer to 125,000.

"The Department's inability to successfully project the correct number of workers is compounded by the fact that the TWIC readers are years away from installation," Thompson said in his opening statement. "Without the readers, a TWIC is merely a flash pass that can be fraudulently duplicated and misused," he said.

Loretta Sanchez, who is the chairwoman of the subcommittee on border, maritime and global counterterrorism, said that waiting for two years to start rolling out readers raises the risk of counterfeit cards being used by some to gain access to restricted areas.

In written testimony, Stephen Caldwell, director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at Government Accountability Office noted that the TSA, despite delays, had made progress in implementing the TWIC program. Problems that the GAO had identified regarding contract planning and oversight and coordination with stakeholders for example have all been addressed, he said.

This story, "U.S. Transportation Workers May Get Smart ID Cards" was originally published by Computerworld.

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