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Transit-Worker ID Program Stalled
It took an election-year political furor over the attempt by a Dubai company to take over operations at six U.S. seaports to jump-start the project. Faced with a reminder of how little has been done to secure facilities from infiltration by potential terrorists, lawmakers called the administration's bungling of the transportation-worker IDs the Achilles' heel of the nation's port security.
But when Homeland Security officials rushed out long-delayed rules in May, labor and the nation's port operators, truckers, barge companies and tugboat companies revolted.
Industry groups and technology providers warned that complex systems for personal identification numbers and card reading could be prone to time-consuming breakdowns in saltwater environments on boats and docks. Marine executives said requiring new workers to wait as long as 60 days to clear security checks would cripple small and seasonal operators that already face worker shortages. Unions warned that without strict limits and an appeals process, workers could be denied jobs because of mistaken identity or past offenses unrelated to terrorism.
"It just doesn't make any sense given the real-world operations of the tugboat industry," said Thomas A. Allegretti, president of American Waterways Operators, which represents 500 tug and barge firms.
In July, the Homeland Security inspector general reported that hundreds of critical security vulnerabilities in proposed cards, card readers and other parts of the system posed unacceptable risks of the theft of sensitive data. Other problems include evolving federal technology standards and a projected cost to industry and workers of $2 billion to $3 billion.
Officials said these concerns are a preview of what could happen on a much larger scale with the broader government use of "smart" cards.
"You have to have a single way of identifying people as who they are that is authentic, that maintains their confidentiality and that is secure," said David Heyman, director of the homeland security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Experts caution that Americans may not want to submit their fingerprints and eye and facial scans to the government. Privacy advocates want to know who will be in charge of keeping and discarding sensitive personal information, and how that data will be kept secure.
They are concerned about the types of government databases that would be linked to such ID records and who would see them. And even if there is consensus on the security needs, others are skeptical that the technology can be implemented without creating bottlenecks and backlogs.
"There's this idea that an ID card or ID credential is this kind of panacea," said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "But they are difficult to design and implement . . . and what we're seeing is every attempt to do so is fraught with serious, serious problems."
The questions are not hypothetical. By year's end, Homeland Security is expected to roll out national standards for driver's licenses, which would affect 200 million Americans when the rules take effect by May 2008. The change was mandated by the Real ID Act, which was enacted to make it more difficult for criminals and potential terrorists to obtain driver's licenses.
Last month, the State Department began small-scale production of the first microchip-equipped "e-passports" that over the next 11 years will replace all 60 million U.S.-issued passports and could be upgraded to include fingerprints or other biometric data.
Up to 4 million federal workers and contractors are to be next, receiving new IDs over two years starting in October. Then will come cards allowing tens of millions of residents of the United States, Canada, Mexico and many Caribbean nations to cross each other's borders without a passport. And the White House has proposed issuing similar tamper-proof biometric cards to 2 million guest workers under its contested immigration overhaul.
Analysts cite clear lessons from the transportation-worker ID program's struggles as warnings for programs such as Real ID, which they say will have to be delayed given its far greater size, cost and complexity.
As for the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, Homeland Security announced last month that after missing a July deadline, it will postpone the installation of card readers. Critics say that for now the department has simply created a $150-per-worker photo ID. The Senate on Thursday passed port-security legislation that would force the department to ease requirements for certain short-term workers and issue rules for card readers by Dec. 31, start more test programs and report back in 2008.
"It's clear the department seems unable to complete the task and control access to our ports, which is a fundamental aspect of security," said Sen. Susan M. Collins (R-Maine), chairman of the Senate homeland security committee and co-sponsor of the bill.
Chertoff maintained that conducting background checks and issuing conventional ID cards are progress. "The fact that we may not have the full-blown perfect system doesn't mean we can't take a big step forward," he said earlier this month.
In a Sept. 8 speech, he went further, blaming the lack of progress on unnamed critics who object to tamper-resistant IDs as too burdensome or expensive, or say they amount to a national ID card.
"That kind of backsliding runs directly contrary to the lessons of 9/11," Chertoff said, noting that nearly all the Sept. 11 hijackers had obtained IDs, in some cases through fraud. He contended that a secure ID system would have prevented the attacks. "If we'd had it five years ago, there would not have been a 9/11," Chertoff said.