WASHINGTON, Sept. 20 (UPI) -- Support is growing among key government officials and travel industry groups for creation of a registered traveler program for screening airline customers and employees, despite objections by civil libertarians and privacy advocates.
The registered traveler plan would allow low-risk airline passengers and employees to bypass most airport security protocols in return for permitting a rigorous background check and biometric screening.
"The screening process would be less stringent for people with trusted traveler cards," Eugene Laney, director of legislative services for the National Business Travel Association, told United Press International Friday. "We believe this would make that haystack a little smaller."
Officials at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a Washington-based research group, are concerned about language in the Aviation Security Improvement Act that would give a blanket authorization to the undersecretary of transportation for security to implement the program without public debate, which ultimately could lead to an intrusive national identification card system.
EPIC officials urged the Senate Commerce Committee to hold public hearings before giving the government authority to implement such a system.
"The privacy and security risks of large-scale biometric identification verification technologies have not been adequately assessed," EPIC officials wrote in a letter to Sens. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman and ranking member of the committee.
Privacy advocates are concerned that government use of biometric screening could lead to civil rights abuses, identification theft and other potential problems for private citizens, according to Mihir Kshirsagar, policy analyst for EPIC.
"Profiling is one major risk that a national ID presents," he told UPI. "I think there are others."
Officials at American Airlines and other carriers have said security procedures implemented after Sept. 11, 2001, are creating unnecessary hassles for low-risk passengers, and leading some to avoid flying altogether.
Transportation Security Administration officials recently changed their public stance on such a program, arguing a registered traveler program would allow airport security screeners to concentrate on high-risk passengers.
Adm. James Loy, acting undersecretary of transportation for security, told the Senate Commerce Committee last week a registered travel program would help improve airport security and reduce waiting times.
"I am convinced we can balance the needs of security with common sense for those who agree to register for this program and submit to a rigorous background check," he said.
Plans call for a Transportation Worker Identification Card to be implemented first, which would allow for faster security clearance of airline employees.
Loy told the committee, however, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have placed restrictions on the ability of the TSA to implement the TWIC program.
Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls, a company that specializes in facilities management, said Thursday its poll of 203 frequent business fliers found most would support more intrusive personal identification technology if it streamlined airport security check-in.
The Johnson poll showed three-fourths of respondents said they would be "extremely" or "very" willing to undergo a fingerprint scan at the airport if it helped shorten check-in time. Nearly two-thirds were willing to undergo an iris or facial recognition scan and 61 percent said they were extremely or very willing to use a national identification card with thumbprint.
(Reported by David Jones, UPI Technology News, in Newark, N.J.)