TSA to put smart cards in play

TSA CIO Patrick Schambach says the smart-card pilot for employees will go ahead after a congressional OK.

Henrik G. DeGyor

The Transportation Security Administration is forging ahead with a smart-card pilot and airline passenger-screening project, despite an anticipated multimillion-dollar budget shortfall next year.

For fiscal 2004, the agency expects to receive $500 million less than it requested in the proposal it sent to the Office of Management and Budget, CIO Patrick Schambach said. In the budget he sent to Congress, President Bush earmarked $4.81 billion for TSA.

Even so, TSA leaders said they won't delay their Transit Worker Identification Credential project. Through the TWIC effort, TSA wants to issue smart cards'to public- and private-sector workers'for physical and network entry at several transportation nodes across the entire nation, including ports, railways and airports.

The agency could issue a request for proposals as early as this month, said Schambach, who acknowledged that the agency must still sort out the funding gap. 'That's still going to go forward,' he said.

And, the agency this month awarded a five-year, $12 million contract to Lockheed Martin Corp. to build the nationwide passenger-screening system. Through the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II project, TSA wants to check information submitted by passengers when making airline reservations against terrorist watch lists and other records. CAPPS II would validate the information before someone boards a plane, TSA officials said.

As for the smart-card pilot, TSA first suggested its development in 2002. But the program hit holdups, partly because Congress felt the agency had over-reached realistic expectations.

Back on track

Having won over lawmakers for this year, the first phase'a four-month evaluation of six types of cards at six small entry points'was scheduled to have gotten under way already. But TSA officials said they had to spend longer than anticipated scoping out pilot sites in the Philadelphia-Wilmington region in the east and the Long Beach-Los Angeles area in the west, and narrowing down the list of technologies.

The agency expects to begin a five-month technical evaluation in a few weeks. A prototype of the preferred technology would take another seven months, pushing the earliest date for full implementation into next year.

'It was a matter of getting out, identifying areas and facilities,' said James Sharp, stakeholder manager for the TWIC program. 'I think as we got into it, maybe that [original timeline] was pushing it too quickly.'

Although it OK'd the project for this year, lawmakers voiced their concerns about the technology TSA would test.

A House Appropriations Committee report accompanying the Transportation Department appropriations bill for fiscal 2003 discouraged TSA from developing new technologies 'if existing ones, already developed by other federal agencies, are good enough.'

Lawmakers endorsed a laser-optical smart card already in use at the Immigration and Naturalization Service for green cards. Datatrac Information Services Inc. of Richardson, Texas, developed the laser-optical card for INS.

The recommendation led TSA to widen the circle of products it was considering beyond the first product descriptions it included in a June solicitation.

'We're not ruling out anything and have tried to make sure the door is open to every technological solution,' Sharp said, but declined to comment directly on the report. 'We're still finalizing the list.'

Randy Vanderhoof, executive director of the nonprofit Smart Card Alliance Inc. of Princeton Junction, N.J., said the waiting game should be near its end. 'I believe TSA has satisfied those concerns,' he said, reeling off a list of standards-ready card technologies under discussion, including laser-optical, magnetic-stripe and 2-D bar code.

TWIC check

For this year the agency received $35 million for TWIC, and lawmakers identified the pilot as a top TSA priority despite earlier criticisms from House and Senate leaders.

In 2002, both houses held back funding for TWIC. In the report attached to this year's funding bill, House Appropriations reiterated its earlier concerns. Chiefly, it called the idea of assigning single-card access to hundreds of workers at dozens of entry points is 'so grandiose as to be infeasible and unworkable.'

Even with a hand from industry, 'it is unlikely that consensus across all the affected industries could be reached,' the committee noted.

But TSA leaders have refused to turn their backs on TWIC.

Trucker's lament

'We have a trucker who has paid for 23 separate background investigations to enable him to have 23 separate credentials to get from Point A to Point B to Point C,' said Adm. James M. Loy, undersecretary of Transportation for security, speaking in late January at a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting.

'We have an endless list of people associated with the transportation sector ... that we need to have confidence in, allowing them unescorted access into certain corners of the transportation system,' Loy said.

As for the passenger-screening project, Loy said CAPPS II would transfer identity-checking responsibility from the airlines to TSA.

The trade-off, Loy said, won't put passengers' private information at risk'a concern he called understandable and one raised vociferously by privacy advocacy groups in the past weeks. The system will gather from airlines a passenger's full name, address, telephone number and birth date.

It will improve the 'process by which we select those few people for additional scrutiny before we allow them on an aircraft,' Loy said.

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