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1/24/2006
08:35 AM
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Does An Outside Contractor Help Speed Some Tech Projects?

Two transportation-security projects have yielded vastly different results thus far. One big difference is an outside contractor's level of involvement.

I recently noticed an interesting anomaly that I thought I'd point out. Truth to tell, I'm not exactly sure what to make of it myself--but it sure raises questions.

The Department of Homeland Security recently began a three-month test of its RFID-based E-passport program at San Francisco International Airport. The new document includes contactless chips with digital photographs. This marks the DHS's second test of E-passports because, a DHS manager said in a statement, the first test (in Los Angeles) was "inconclusive" when it came to discerning how the technology pieces were working.

One of the issues last time around concerned privacy, namely the ability for anyone equipped with RFID readers, including terrorists, to be able to scan travelers' passports.

The plan now is to complete this new test, decide how the new technology is working, and go from there. In other words, slow but steady.

Contrast this to the Clear registered traveler program, which is going great guns. Indianapolis' airport has recently signed up, making it the fourth airport to do so. Airports in Orlando, Fla., and in Sacramento and San Jose, Calif., are also participating, with some 13,000 individuals shelling out the $80 annual fee.

Clear, as you might recall, is an optional program meant to allow frequent travelers to "clear" security lines quickly because they've already been screened and carry smart cards and enter a dedicated checkpoint to have their iris or fingerprint scanned. Unless the traveler sets off the metal detector, or the X-ray machine shows a suspicious item, the passenger should be good to go.

The Transportation Security Administration, under whose purview the Clear program comes, tested the program for six months last year and is working with a private contractor that's actually administering the program.

Just last week, the TSA issued detailed guidelines about the specific biometrics involved, including the collection of all 10 fingerprints from any given traveler, the complaint process for anyone who applies and is denied, the specific smart-card technology involved, and other things.

By May, the TSA expects to select a company or group to certify and manage service providers and receive plans from third parties about how to help the different airports' programs interoperate.

Interesting, huh? Both are Homeland Security-related technology programs, with very different outcomes so far. And yes, there are differences in the scope of the projects, too. For its part, E-passport is international in nature; Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand are partners in the current test. And, of course, Clear is voluntary, whereas E-passport is not.

Mostly, though, I'm wondering whether the addition of a motivated private-sector company, which for the Clear program involves Verified Identity Pass, makes any difference in terms of how quickly things get done.

If Clear keeps growing at this pace, and it's successful--meaning participants do get through airport security quickly and there aren't any privacy breaches--then perhaps that is the most powerful case yet for a public-private partnership in the extremely sensitive area of security.

What do you think?

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