WASHINGTON, Aug. 24 (UPI) -- The Department of Homeland Security quietly announced this week that port facility and merchant vessel owners and operators will not be required to install readers for the biometric ID cards it plans to issue to the nation's transportation workers.
The change, which critics says guts the security benefit of the proposal, is the latest stumble for the controversial ID card project, called the Transportation Worker Identity Credential, or TWIC program.
Officials "have concluded that facility and vessel owners and operators will not be required to purchase or install card readers during the first phase of the TWIC implementation," reads a notice in the Federal Register published Monday.
The notice also promises that "a requirement to purchase and install card readers will not be implemented until the public is afforded further opportunity to comment on that aspect of the ... program." It adds that "the details of this approach will be explained in the next rulemaking."
The TWIC program, mandated by Congress in the 2002 Maritime Transportation Security Act, is designed eventually to cover 725,000 airport workers, truck drivers, merchant seafarers and others needing unescorted access to transportation facilities like ships, ports and runways.
Workers requiring the card will have to submit their fingerprints and undergo a criminal record, terrorism watch-list and immigration status background check. They will have to travel twice to one of the 125 issuing stations homeland security intends to set up around the country -- once to apply and once to pick the card up -- and pay around $150.
But progress has been slow and marred by concerns about cost, the security of the card-issuance process, and how workers wrongly refused a card will be able to get redress.
Now critics complain that the Department of Homeland Security has effectively gutted the program by removing a requirement that card readers be installed at ports and on vessels.
"At least for the initial phase, there is not going to be any way to automatically authenticate the identity of the card-holder at these maritime facilities," Walter Hamilton, chairman of the International Biometric Industry Association, told United Press International.
"Is there going to be a way to make sure it's (the card-holder) Tom and not Tom's cousin" holding the card? asked a senior congressional staffer familiar with the program. "No. There isn't."
No one from homeland security responded to phone calls or e-mails requesting comment, but the Federal Register notice, first reported by the Web site of Government Executive magazine, says the move followed congressional requests for an extension to the 45-day comment period on the proposed rules for the program.
The staffer told UPI that the change was the result of concerns from industry about how the technology required would operate in a maritime environment.
"These are not insurmountable problems," said the staffer, predicting a delay of six months or a year at most before the mandate for readers could be imposed.
The staffer said the pilot project run by homeland security to test the program had employed contact-less card readers "which worked well in a maritime environment," but had then selected a different kind of reader, requiring the card to be swiped, in the rule.
In a maritime environment, said the staffer, where the swipe readers would be exposed to salt water and sea air, corrosion and other types of damage could quickly render them useless.
Originally slated to issue cards to 75,000 workers at a cost of $12.3 million, the pilot, which was run by government contractor BearingPoint, ended up costing $22.8 million and issuing only 4,000 cards, of which less than half were ever activated, according to figures from congressional oversight committees.
Moreover, said the staffer, there was no testing aboard ships as part of the pilot. "Vessels at sea present unique environmental challenges," said the staffer, adding there were also other concerns about sealing off important areas on long voyages.
"There are legitimate safety issues associated with trying to isolate certain areas (onboard a ship) for security purposes," said the staffer, asking what would happen during a fire or a hull-breach if the reader malfunctioned or a crewmember dropped their card and couldn't gain access.
"It makes little sense to impose technology on the industry when there is so much uncertainty about how it will operate in practice," the staffer said, adding that, even without the readers initially installed, the TWIC program would have a security benefit, because of the background checks run on the workers who apply for it.
But labor unions protested that using the credential as a "flash card" -- one that is simply shown to a guard, rather than confirming the holder's identity through biometrics or a PIN number -- would give a false sense of security and increase the ease with which criminal or terrorist gangs could infiltrate transportation facilities by posing as credentialed workers.
"Why should workers bear the brunt of our government's transportation security programs?" asked Edward Wytkind, president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO in a statement.
"It makes no sense to impose onerous requirements on workers now and force them to pay almost $150 for a glorified flash pass that may never be used as intended," Wytkind said.
Hamilton said the biometric industry shared that concern about moving ahead with the credential issuance process before resolving key technological issues regarding the readers.
"Will these cards have to be modified or re-issued at a later date" if it turns out that the readers chosen are not compatible? he asked.
"It is unfortunate that they didn't think these issues through before" issuing the proposed rule, he said.