Airport officials ask Congress not to disrupt TSA biometrics work

Airport executives are asking Congress not to disrupt an existing biometrics program that would be converted to full competition if new TSA legislation is passed.

Executives at more than 80 airports are defending an existing federally affiliated biometric program exclusively run by their trade association and are urging Congress not to convert the project into a fully competitive contract.

Under pending legislation, the Transportation Security Administration would be required to seek competitive bids for the first time to process and transmit fingerprint data needed for background checks on millions of aviation workers.

In 2001, the TSA designated the Transportation Security Clearinghouse, an entity owned by the American Association of Airport Executives, as the sole provider to perform that work. The clearinghouse collects fees from the aviation workers, currently $27 per worker, as payment. The TSA later also designated the clearinghouse for additional biometric handling projects, including Registered Traveler.

The provision to convert that work to full competition is included in the TSA reauthorization bill, H.R. 2200, sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-Texas), which is being debated on the House floor this week.

The airport executives are urging Congress to consider the risks of making changes to a program that they say is delivering valuable services at a low cost.

“While competition in this area is a worthy goal, it must not come at the expense of a process that works well and that has served our industry and the cause of aviation security admirably for nearly eight years,” the executives wrote in a June 2 letter to the chairs and ranking members of the House Homeland Security and Transportation Committees.

“As you have the opportunity to consider legislation aimed at enhancing competition in security background screening services, we ask that you take steps to ensure that the current process facilitated by the Transportation Security Clearinghouse is not disrupted and that any service providers approved to perform similar functions are able to meet the same levels of security and service that are currently provided by the Transportation Security Clearinghouse,” the executives wrote.

A biometrics industry group released a statement today objecting to the airport executives’ arguments. Other vendors are available in the market that can provide comparable work at low cost, according to a statement from the International Biomoetrics Industry Association.

Also, there is no reason to believe that full and open competition will disrupt or interfere with the performance of the processing, or channeling, of the biometric data, the association contends.

“The function at issue does not rise to the level of justifying using a no-bid sole source contract. Basically, it is a message routing service (“channeling”). The service provider neither analyzes nor processes the data; it only transmits the data. While the information must be protected, many other companies are also FBI-certified as meeting all security and privacy requirements,” the biometric association statement said.

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