Biometric screening: easy or dangerous?

By THEODORA BLANCHFIELD  |  Jan. 17, 2005 at 6:01 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter

WASHINGTON, Jan. 17 (UPI) -- Charlie Zelle, chief executive officer of Minneapolis-based Jefferson Lines, is a frequent business flyer. When the prospect of being able to bypass security lines at various airports presented itself, he jumped on the opportunity to be one of the first in the nation to try this new technology.

When he arrives at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, his home airport, instead of going to terminal where people are trying to check onto flights from different airlines, he goes to a centralized entry area to check in as part of a biometric screening program.

"There's a separate line," he said, "At the onset (beginning) of the program, there were two machines that used fingerprints to verify identities. You would place your index finger in the machine, and a green light would come on, verifying your identity." Now, Zelle says, iris scans are used.

"I wanted to try it out to save time," Zelle said. "I like the idea that I won't be randomly selected for a vigorous shakedown. It's not so much the idea of taking off your coat and shoes that bothers me. I just hate that everyone behind you on line is pushing you along with the trays to hurry up so they can get to their flight too."

At five airports around the country, a pilot program that uses biometric screening is being tested on willing passengers. The program uses background information about travelers and biometric information, such as fingerprints or iris scans to verify the passenger's identity and allow them to proceed through security faster, allowing screeners to concentrate their efforts more on someone that may pose a potential threat.

The Registered Traveler Pilot program includes Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Los Angeles International Airport, George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Boston Logan International Airport, and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

The program, which began at Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, was initially being tested for 90-day periods at these airports, but because of its success, it has been extended indefinitely, said Amy Von Walter, a spokesperson for the Transportation Security Administration. There are no definite plans yet for future sites, she said, but there is discussion of implementing the program in Orlando.

Von Walter said that participation in the program was completely voluntary, and that 10,000 people nationwide were a part of it, with about 2,000 at each airport. A passenger usually becomes a part of the program by invitation. Airlines identify frequent travelers through frequent flyer programs, and invite passengers to join because it will help them get through security faster. Once a passenger agrees to become a part of the program, TSA runs a background check on them including credit history and criminal history. If there are no problems with the background check, the passenger is approved for the program and they are fingerprinted and the irises of their eyes are scanned. When they go to the airport, they go through the same initial security measures -- taking off coats and shoes and placing bags on the belt -- as other passengers, but at a separate biometric kiosk that verifies their identity. They will not be selected for further screening unless they set off the metal detector, which saves valuable time.

Those critical of the program argue that it is counterintuitive. "The notion that you can pre-qualify who the good guys are and who the bad guys are is badly flawed," said Bruce Schneier, author of Beyond Fear, a book analyzing problems in national security. "People say 'Well I'm a good guy, I have a family and kids and I'm just a regular everyday guy. Why can't they just let me through?' The Unabomber was a good guy. The 9/11 hijackers were good guys. They didn't have anything on their records to prove otherwise."

Schneier said that by creating a hard path and an easy path for travelers to get through, invites terrorists to figure out the easy path and take that way. Terrorists will figure out what they need to get selected for biometric screening and will become a part of that program. "Believe it or not," he said "random screening is more secure. The numbers show it."

Another reason that biometric screening may not be the answer is that it may violate civil liberties. The American Civil Liberties Union doesn't believe that sacrificing civil liberties for national security is worth it. "It is going to expand over time to the extent that the supposed voluntary nature [of the program] will fall by the wayside," said Jay Stanley, communications director of the ACLU. "It's going to expand to the point where you have to be a part of it (biometric screening programs) to get through security at all," he said. The problem with this, he said, is that it creates two classes, "one branded trustworthy, and the other not. It's an enormous security hole." The system is flawed when you establish security through identity. "As soon as you do that, all the terrorists are going to try to figure out how to become a part of these programs. Timothy McVeigh was a celebrated military veteran. Theodore Kaczynski was a respected college professor." Identity clearly doesn't work to verify whether or not someone is secure just because of their identifying information.

"Though there can be false positives with biometrics and there are tradeoffs with civil liberties, it might be worth it," said I.M. Destler, a national security scholar and professor of public policy at the University of Maryland. "It is sometimes necessary to compromise civil liberties for national security purposes," he said.

Though the program has been touted as successful, the TSA admits that flaws have been identified in the system. TSA is working on a preliminary report summarizing the results of the pilot program and working to fix flaws. The report will be released by the end of the year.

Von Walter said that feedback from travelers has been overwhelmingly positive, and that they are enjoying less waiting time at security checkpoints.

Zelle's comments echo that sentiment. "It's a great program," he said, "particularly for frequent travelers. Not knowing whether or not you will face a long line at the airport is stressful. This makes a difference. It saves time and hassle. If they started charging, I would definitely pay for this service."

Trending Stories