Eleven years after Congress required biometric passes for maritime workers, the Transportation Worker Identification Credential is inching forward. But there’s still no industry consensus on how TWIC should work, where it should be required or even whether it’s needed.
That’s evident from the latest round of public comments to the Coast Guard in connection with proposed rules for biometric readers that would allow TWICs to be used for more than a photo ID.
Coast Guard officials expect to spend the next year evaluating the comments and tweaking proposed regulations for biometric readers, and then take two more years for implementation. In the meantime, TWIC is dogged by controversy and confusion.
Recent pilot tests of TWIC biometric readers added little clarity. The Government Accountability Office criticized the pilot tests as “incomplete, inaccurate and unreliable.” Coast Guard officials said the tests, although not as complete as they would have liked, still provided useful data.
Walter Hamilton, vice president of the International Biometrics and Identification Association, said congressional displeasure, expressed at two recent hearings, was understandable. “I understand why Congress was spooked. The GAO report would have spooked anybody,” he said.
“The pilot program was just that — a pilot,” he said. “The purpose of a pilot is to expose things that work, and things that don’t work, so that you can derive lessons learned and go forward in a much more appropriate way.”
The pilot program’s shortcomings stemmed largely from the fact that about half of the 2.5 million TWICs in circulation are of a flimsier older design that was replaced in 2009, Hamilton said. The older cards’ radio frequency antennas tended to separate from the card’s integrated-circuit chip. When that happened, “contactless” biometric readers used in the pilot tests couldn’t read the cards.
By the time the Coast Guard issues and implements the final TWIC regulations, the older cards will have hit their five-year expirations and will have cycled out of circulation, Hamilton said. “The cards issued today are far more durable, on an order of magnitude,” he said. “Those cards are going to work and work well, so we don’t see that as a problem going forward.”
While the Coast Guard was conducting its pilot program, SSA Marine introduced the “Beast Box,” a “contact” biometric card reader in which users insert their TWICs. The company has installed 33 of the devices at its Long Beach terminals. SSA has used them for more than 1 million TWIC transactions since May 2012.
Opposition from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union has blocked use of TWIC biometric checks for longshoremen. But the box is used to check truckers’ TWICs to ensure they’re still valid, and the system’s full biometric features are used for access to SSA’s computer server rooms.
Hamilton said the SSA box shows that biometric readers can work in a port environment. He said the Beast Box allows SSA to improve basic safety at its terminals, and that it has identified hundreds of cases in which persons with invalid TWICs attempted to gain access to the terminal.
Curt Campbell, SSA’s director of marine security and safety, said he hopes the Coast Guard requires TWIC biometric readers at container terminals. The current proposal allows terminals to install biometric readers but requires them only for vessels, facilities and barge fleeting areas handling dangerous bulk commodities, and vessels or facilities handling more than 1,000 passengers at a time.
The Coast Guard said expanding the reader requirement to facilities such as container terminals would push the reader program’s annual cost to $141.2 million from $26.5 million under the more limited program. In its comments on the TWIC reader rules, the biometrics association said the cost-benefit analysis did not consider the economic impact of a terrorist attack on a busy container terminal in a large metropolitan area.
Bethann Rooney, manager of port security at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, said the Coast Guard’s proposed rules would require TWIC readers “at less than 5 percent of the facilities in the nation’s highest-risk port.” If the Coast Guard doesn’t require biometric readers at container terminals, she said, it should at least require workers in secure areas to display TWICs, as aviation workers must do with their security IDs.
Not everyone is convinced TWIC is needed. “We have created a program that singles out one commercial sector for vastly heightened scrutiny and developed an overly complex process for its implementation,” maritime consultant Dennis Bryant wrote in a recent commentary in Maritime Reporter and Engineering News.
Bryant, a retired Coast Guard captain and maritime lawyer, noted that TWIC grew out of a bill that former Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., introduced in 2000 to deter waterfront crime and cargo theft. The legislation was reworked after the September 11 attacks to emphasize terrorism and sailed through Congress with minimal debate.
Since then, Congress has held numerous hearings to criticize TWIC delays but has never re-examined the requirement for a biometric maritime ID. “The Transportation Security Administration and the Coast Guard have been trying to do what Congress ordered them to do, but it may be that what they’ve been ordered to do isn’t the best thing,” Bryant told The Journal of Commerce.
While the Coast Guard fine-tines its regulations for TWIC biometric readers, the maritime industry is watching developments in Congress. There’s no move to reverse course on the Maritime Transportation Security Act of 2002, which required biometric readers. However, the Department of Homeland Security’s fiscal 2014 funding bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee would withhold $30 million from the TSA until it provides an assessment that considers alternative approaches to a security ID, including a decentralized program like that suggested by the recent GAO report.