Bill Would Mandate Airport Worker Biometric IDs

Friday, 09 May 2008

TSA is cautious about standardizing ID requirements across airports for fear of diminishing effective tailored programs

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) introduced a bill Wednesday that would compel the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to issue biometric identification credentials to US airports, but the agency prefers a decentralized approach to airport security that makes best use of available funds and resources.

The Biometric Enhancement and Airport-Risk Reduction (BEAR) Act of 2008 (HR 5982) would require TSA to study the use of biometrics and report to Congress on how to best issue biometric identifiers to airport workers. TSA already has a pilot program in place to screen employees with biometric identification cards at Denver International Airport and Boston Logan Airport, TSA spokesperson Christopher White told

"We are evaluating a number of different ways to increase employee security," White cautioned. "We are committed to raising the bar on employee security. And we are very happy that Congress has given us the flexibility to look at various ways of doing this better.

"But if we put all of our eggs in one basket to screen all employees at every access point at every airport in the country, are we lessening our ability to detect someone throwing a duffle bag over a fence at a perimeter?" he asked. "We have to look at risk and how we manage risk and how we mitigate risk. A multi-layered unpredictable approach to security is often the best approach."

Still, the pilot programs in Boston and Denver, which run 90 days, already would conclude around August and result in a report to Congress on the effectiveness of biometrics in airport worker identification cards in September, White said.

In a press release introducing the bill, Thompson asserted that the use of biometrics would upgrade airport employee credentials to a necessarily level of identity authentication.

"This bill is an innovative approach towards legislating smart security, it ensures there is a comprehensive plan in place before airports begin using biometric identification for its workers," Thompson said in a statement. "This is not about re-inventing the wheel or putting a stop to any good work at TSA--it is about helping us build upon smart, efficient, and effective airport security measures needed to secure Americans and protect a vital industry to our economy and resiliency."

Secure Areas

Currently, individual airports administer their own worker identification programs as part of security plans approved by TSA. However, badges vary from airport to airport. Some airports make use of biometrics but many issue a standard radio frequency identification card for use in conjunction with a personal identification number or some other system.

This decentralized system, which predates TSA by many years, permits airports to develop access schemes that best suit their individual layouts, White contended.

"Access control points range from less than a dozen at one airport to hundreds at another. So one size does not fit all in this case," he remarked.

All airports check their workers against terrorist watch lists daily and automatically cut off access for anyone who turns up on such a list, White noted.

Every airport divides itself up into three different spaces-public spaces, secure areas still open to the public, and secure identification display areas (SIDA) open only to authorized personnel.

Airport workers, such as restaurant personnel, can have a secure ID badge that permits them to go through a dedicated employee line for screening at TSA checkpoints. Airline personnel like baggage handlers, however, often have SIDA badges programmed to provide access to specific sensitive areas they must enter to do their jobs.

SIDA badgeholders can only enter designated spaces to carry out their specific jobs. So a baggage handler for Delta Airlines could enter loading ramps for Delta but not for American Airlines, White said.

But badges alone do not account for a complete security plan, White stressed.

"TSA employs a layered approach to security. We don't rely on any one layer of security to be completely impenetrable," White stated. "So we know who has the badges, we limit where they can go, and then we have other layers of security like roving patrols of TSA officers that can screen individuals anywhere in the airport-public or private, secure or non-secure-at any time."

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