$250 million TWIC port security project hobbled by lack of biometric readers

Published 17 April 2009

What is the use of issuing more than 1 million biometric IDs to truckers, deckhands, and others requiring access to secure areas at sea ports — if there are no reliable biometric readers at the ports to read these cards? Post security project suffers

A six-year, $250 million antiterrorism effort to secure the U.S. ports is delayed for at least two more years because the government lacks machines to read fingerprint ID cards issued to more than 1 million workers. Truckers, deckhands, and others requiring access to secure areas at ports paid $132 apiece for the high-tech ID cards that have their fingerprints embedded in them. DHS, which is overseeing the program, says it still lacks fingerprint readers that can be used reliably in harsh weather.

USA Today’s Thomas Frank writes that a senior lawmaker and a labor official say readers should have been installed at the nation’s seaports to prevent people from using fake IDs. Congress ordered the cards in late 2002 based on concerns that terrorists might try to blow up busy seaports or smuggle bombs, weapons, or operatives into the country inside cargo containers. Homeland Security was supposed to issue orders this month requiring ports to install card-reading machines, under a 2006 law.

The order will not be issued until late 2010 and it may exempt low-risk ports from having card readers, Coast Guard Cmdr. Dave Murk said. “Most people would say it’s real dumb to have security cards that rely so much on technology and yet you fail to provide a reader for the card,” said House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi). “That was not the intent of the program.”

Chuck Mack of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said, “It’s grossly unfair to spend that kind of money and not have the readers in place.”

Maurine Fanguy, head of the ID program, said the cards improve security even without the fingerprint scanners, because they are issued after workers’ criminal history and immigration status are checked. The cards, which have holograms and microprinting that can be read only with magnification, are hard to forge, Fanguy said. Port workers previously used driver’s licenses or port ID cards. “This is a much more secure credential,” Fanguy said. About 1 million port workers and 200,000 mariners have received the cards.

DHS had proposed in 2006 that ports be required to install readers, but decided to delay the idea when business groups said more time was needed to make sure the readers work. “If this equipment fails, especially at a busy port, that’s going to have the effect of shutting down commerce,” said Aaron Ellis, spokesman for the American Association of Port Authorities. Installing card readers could cost $1 billion, Ellis said.

Card-reader testing will begin soon at seven sites, including ports in Los Angeles and New York. Christopher Koch of the World Shipping Council said the gradual approach to new ID cards and readers has “avoided major disruptions” at ports.