After more than a decade of frustration and delays, the Coast Guard is pressing on with efforts to turn the much-maligned Transportation Worker Identification Credential into more than a pricey photo ID.
TWIC was conceived soon after the September 11 terrorist attacks, when Congress ordered development of a uniform biometric security ID for unescorted access to secure transportation facilities. It was a bold directive that’s been difficult to accomplish.
Some 2.5 million credentials have been issued since 2007, but workers who were fingerprinted, given background checks and paid $129.75 for a TWIC complain the cards do little but occupy space in their wallets. “They’re just plain useless, a complete waste of time,” said Joe Meyers, a port trucker from Savannah. Gate clerks at most marine terminals he serves pay more attention to his driver’s license than to his TWIC, he said.
TWIC took heat on Capitol Hill in May after a Government Accountability Office report criticized a Coast Guard pilot test of biometric readers. The pilot program was conducted to gather information for the Coast Guard to use in developing regulations for the readers.
The GAO said the pilot tests produced results that “were incomplete, inaccurate and unreliable for informing Congress and for developing a regulation.” The report renewed the GAO’s suggestion that a less-centralized approach might work better than a nationwide biometric credential.
Members of a House oversight committee cited the GAO report in a May 9 hearing. They complained that 11 years after the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002 required a universal biometric identification, TWIC still functions mainly as a flash card.
Coast Guard officials defended the pilot program, and said the GAO report does not diminish the justification for TWIC as a security tool. The pilot program is only one of several factors being considered in drafting regulations for TWIC readers, said Capt. Paul Thomas, the Coast Guard’s director of inspections and compliance. The Coast Guard is accepting comments through June 20 on those proposed regulations.
“We’re happy to have the results from the pilot program. We will use them where it is appropriate to use them. We don’t see the GAO report as significantly impacting our way forward with TWIC,” Thomas said.
He said the Coast Guard expects to take about a year to review comments and other information and finalize the proposed regulations, and that the current schedule calls for an additional two years for implementation. “You should see readers required at certain facilities in about three years,” Thomas said.
The Coast Guard’s proposed regulations would divide vessels and facilities into three risk categories. Biometric readers would be required only for the highest-risk category — vessels and port facilities handling dangerous bulk commodities, fleeting areas for barges handling those commodities and vessels or facilities handling more than 1,000 passengers at a time.
Container terminals would be placed in the “B” category for risks, and would not be required to have biometric readers. That decision was based on a cost-benefit calculation. Expanding the reader requirement to facilities such as container terminals would push the annual cost of the reader program to $141.2 million from $26.5 million under the more limited program, the Coast Guard said.
The reader requirement could be expanded, and there’s nothing in the proposed regulations to prevent a terminal from using a portable biometric reader for spot checks or special needs, Thomas noted. He said the readers and TWIC itself are only one part of a multi-layered maritime security program.
“We don’t tie the value of the TWIC to the reader. We see the reader as a further enhancement of an access control system that includes fencing, lighting, gates, guards, the credential and, in certain high-risk facilities, the reader. But one is not dependent on the other,” he said.
Walter Hamilton, vice chairman of the International Biometrics and Identification Association, said biometric readers should be required at more facilities. The Coast Guard’s cost-benefit analysis “does not appear to consider the economic cost impact” of a terrorist attack on a large container or petroleum terminal, he said.
TWIC cards issued since 2009, Hamilton added, are more durable and reliable than earlier versions. SSA Marine has deployed 23 TWIC readers of its own design at its West Coast terminals, and has used them for more than 1 million reader access transactions since May 2012, he noted.
While the Coast Guard wrestles with standards for biometric readers, the Transportation Security Administration has drawn criticism from truck drivers and other transportation workers about delays in renewing TWIC cards that are reaching their five-year expirations. Nearly 1 million are set to expire during the next 12 months.
The TSA, which issues TWICs, has said it’s working to smooth the process of TWIC renewals by deploying staff to reduce delays and working to provide one-stop service.
Clifford Biddick of Biddick Towing & Salvage in Charlevoix, Mich., complained in a public comment to the Coast Guard that renewing his TWIC required him to “take a day off work, drive for an hour, wait for my appointment, drive the hour back home, wait for the card to come in, take another day off work, drive back for an hour to pick the @#$&^&! card up, and then drive home for an hour, four bridge tolls at $4.50 each way.”
The Coast Guard’s Thomas said TWIC’s customer service difficulties shouldn’t be confused with the overall need for a uniform credential for transportation workers. He strongly disagreed with the GAO’s suggestion that a decentralized system might work better than a nationwide credential.
Having a uniform ID provides a nationwide standard for background checks, reduces the threat of fraud, makes it easier for security personnel to identify improper credentials, and is less burdensome to workers than having to acquire different credentials from various entities for multiple facilities that may be scattered over several states, Thomas said.