Using TWIC with biometrics will be challenge

NORFOLK, VA.-As the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) continues to enroll the nation's port workers in a new federal credentialing system, it will soon begin shifting more attention to how the credentials will be used, which will present ports with challenges depending on how the identity cards are used, Ed Merkle, the head of security for the Virginia Port Authority, tells TR2 in a recent interview.

Introduction of the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) at the Port Authority's facilities, which is slated to begin in a month or two, will be a good thing, Merkle says. Having to present valid and verifiable documents that prove people are who they say they are combined with government background checks to make sure they are good people will allow the port to "only invite people in to do business with us we know and trust," he says.

Currently obtaining a simple flash pass, especially a visitor's badge, is pretty easy because it typically requires a government form or photo identification. "And anyone that thinks you can't falsify an ID, all you ever have to do is talk to any college kid...they make their own IDs all the time," Merkle says.

Still, port police and others charged with ensuring that an individual belongs on port facilities will need to validate that the card holder is the legitimate user. That's where biometric technology that will be part of the credentialing process and an authentication feature on the card comes in.

But using biometrics, which in the case of TWIC will be fingerprints, to authenticate legitimate card holders will be tricky in Virginia Port Authority's daily operations, Merkle says.

The issue is, "Does it work? How fast," Merkle says of the biometric side of TWIC.

DHS is expected to issues use rules for the TWIC readers shortly, allowing time for public comment before they are finalized. Merkle says a TWIC card will be needed to get through the gates of the Port Authorities terminals, but the question is will the card typically be used as a flash pass or will the readers need to be used.

"We believe that...the regulators at the national level will use the biometric piece of the card at high threat conditions, which we believe is the appropriate time to do that," Merkle says. "But if you're at a low threat condition you have to make some risk management decisions. Is it worth it?"

Merkle suggests that at high threat conditions, and for random checks, handheld readers be used at the gates to the Port Authority's terminals. For one, he says fixed readers at gates make for awkward entry. People in cars sometimes have to get out of their vehicles or back up just to get a ticket from an automated dispenser just for entry into a parking garage, he says.

But with a truck, Merkle says, long mirrors on the outside of the cab prevent the driver from getting close enough to a reader to submit a fingerprint. Moreover, truckers often have dirty hands, which may make it difficult to read the fingerprints, he says.

Even though using handheld readers might mean having several or more police officers manning them at the gate during high threat conditions and for random checks, it still might be more cost effective than using fixed readers, Merkle says.

The Port Authority frequently does modeling and simulation of its gate activity, measuring it in the seconds due to the amount of traffic entering and exiting its three cargo terminals in the Hampton Roads area. In the case of its Norfolk International Terminals, where the gates are near the main road outside the facility, any backups can quickly spillover, affecting commercial and commuting interests, Merkle says.

The Port Authority has an understanding of the spillover affect due to the simulations it runs.

This is true at most terminals around the country, Merkle says. "You can quickly spillover into causing other collateral damage within the interior of the city you're adjacent too."

If DHS decides to use fixed readers at entry gates, that would likely require increasing the number of gates in order to mitigate the spillover affect on the nearby community, Merkle says. Expanding infrastructure can be expensive, he says.

The Port Authority has experience with going from a standard flash pass system to use of electronic gates at its Portsmouth Marine Terminal. There, a trucker still flashes a badge but readers and cameras are used to make sure that the badge is still valid and that the driver of the truck is the same person holding the badge.

However, to maintain the same traffic flow at Portsmouth, the gate infrastructure was expanded from two lanes to seven. If a fingerprint read would be required, depending on the rejection rates, even more lanes might need to be added, Merkle says.

Merkle believes the best place to use a fixed biometric reader infrastructure are the secure or restricted areas of a port such as the command centers and port police facilities.

Other Challenges

Merkle's official title is Director of Port Security and Emergency Operations. He describes his main priorities as prevention, detection, response and recovery. In addition to Port Authority's current credentialing process and access control system, prevention includes a fence line, which is monitored by a closed circuit video system.

To improve the detection and response components of security, the Port Authority recently upgraded its command centers with the Situator situation management software suite developed by Orsus (TR2, Dec. 12, 2007).

With 10 miles of fencing and about 250 security cameras at the Port Authority's three cargo terminals, Situator helps integrate various technology solutions and ensure that various types of incidents that occur automatically provide the appropriate alerts up and down the chain of command, speeding decision flow, Merkle says. Everyone who needs to know has a common operating picture at their workstations, he says.

The Port Authority is also hoping to upgrade its video security technology with improved analytic capabilities. Its current video analytic technology relies on pixel changes to alarm, but this only works well in areas where it can be turned on when there shouldn't be any activity, such as a warehouse once the day's shift is done.

Merkle would like smart video that "learns" what is acceptable versus unacceptable so that it doesn't alert when it doesn't have to. Moreover, he wants technology that not only can detect an individual intruding where he doesn't belong, but can also track that person and then hand off to another camera if necessary.

"And then take that piece of data you're collecting in the dispatch center and push it out to the officer who has to do the response," Merkle says.

"In essence allow the officer to look around the corner before they come around the corner." This capability could be selectively deployed for certain areas of the container terminals, he says.

Merkle also likes prospect of adding license plate recognition technology at terminal gates. The technology could be used to know if a vehicle is entering the terminals' that doesn't normally come on and to ensure that a license plate is valid, he says.

For the response and recovery part of security, Merkle says having interoperable communications systems is critical so that the various responding organizations can work together.