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Problems with the Transportation Worker Identification Credential

The initiative to document and screen workers at our nation's ports using a biometric identification card came under renewed criticism before the House Homeland Security Committee yesterday.

The Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) is a joint effort between the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the U.S. Coast Guard to issue a biometric ID for those who work in or need access to secure areas of our nation's ports. The first pilot test of TWIC began on October 16 at the port of Wilimington, Delaware. Eleven more ports should be starting the pilot program this month.

"TWIC was mandated in law five years ago," said Representative Bennie G. Thompson, chairman of the committee. "It was supposed to provide an extra layer of security at our nation's ports and other critical transportation hubs. However, it seems that even before this program gets off the ground, it may have some fatal flaws that undermine its ultimate effectiveness."

The program was split into two phases to make it easier for stakeholders to implement. Phase I deals with enrollment and card issuance, while Phase II is the deployment of card readers. According to witnesses at the hearing, problems associated with both phases are widespread and are eroding maritime industry stakeholders' confidence in and patience with the TWIC.

According to witness testimony, some of those "fatal flaws" include inaccurate enrollment estimates, interoperability problems with international standards, the inability of many truck drivers to qualify for the TWIC, and concerns about the accuracy of the biometric technology.

Bethann Rooney, manager of port security for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said TSA's initial estimate of how many workers would need to be enrolled in Phase I of the program was wildly off the mark. "In the Port of New York and New Jersey alone, the TSA estimated that there would be 60,256 individuals who would need a TWIC," she said. "With just a 70 percent return on a survey of all stakeholders in our port, our population counts are closer to 125,000 people, more than double the TSA's estimates."

At the Port of Houston, TSA estimates were one-twelfth of what they should have been.

George Quick, vice president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots, was concerned that TSA and the Coast Guard could ignore internationally accepted biometric identifier standards which the United States already uses to verify new electronic passports held by foreign visitors entering the country through its airports. TSA and the Coast Guard based the TWIC on federal ID cards used by federal workers instead, which have never been tested in the private sector.

Quick said he could not understand why TSA and the Coast Guard would choose "an internal federal government standard for the TWIC that will never be interoperable with international standards and is untested and unproven on the massive scale required by the TWIC program."

Port stakeholders also worry a large number of truck drivers will not be eligible to receive the TWIC because of past crimes they committed or because of an arrest record, even though the infractions were not terrorism-related. Worse, according to Maurice Emsellem of the National Employment Law Project, the FBI records used for background screening are incomplete, meaning that "TSA is disqualifying large numbers of workers based solely on old arrests that have never led to a conviction." According to ChairmanThompson, as many as 40 percent of truck drivers would be disqualified from receiving the TWIC.

Critics are already predicting problems with Phase II of the TWIC, the installation and use of biometric card readers. An early deployment of fingerprint biometric technology at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey failed to meet standards with readers malfunctioning in an outdoor environment. Readers outdoors had a false rejection rate of 9 percent, although TWIC standards call for a rejection rate no more than 1 percent. The readers, according to Rooney, "suffered greatly in both the rain and severe cold and 71 percent of the readers needed to be replaced within a year due to hardware and display failures."

Thompson, echoing the frustration of the assembled witnesses, said, "The department is already charging $132.50 for the TWIC. How much more should we expect folks to have to pay?"

For more on TWIC, see the November issue of Security Management.