Facing the need for biometrics

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks have sparked interest in using biometric technology to strengthen aviation security

Last month's terrorist attacks have sparked interest in using biometric technology to strengthen aviation security, and a report issued last week details how such technology might be used. But privacy advocates say the technology poses serious threats to civil liberties.

Since the Sept. 11 attacks, there has been a new urgency to deploy biometric systems at airports, said Richard Norton, executive director of the International Biometric Industry Association. Such systems identify people by unique physical characteristics such as iris patterns, fingerprints or facial structure. "The reaction has been, 'Let's get this stuff out there as part of the solution. Let's move,' " Norton said. "Now, people see a compelling case for it."

Biometrics can be used to secure access to restricted areas of airports, verify passengers' identities and scan terminals for suspected terrorists or other criminals, he said.

"Those are the areas we think biometrics are ready for deployment now," Norton said. "There are many viable technologies that can quickly fit this bill." The increased security measures President Bush announced last week, including expanding the Federal Aviation Administration's Federal Air Marshal Program and putting the federal government in charge of purchasing equipment, didn't address what kinds of technology should be used at airports. FAA spokeswoman Tammy Jones said the agency is considering several security options.

A report issued last week by the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank associated with the moderate Democratic Leadership Council, argued that biometrics will be "a key technology for airport security in the future" and called on Congress and the Bush administration to take specific steps to implement it.

Under the plan, written by PPI Vice President Robert Atkinson, passengers and airport and airline employees would be issued a smart card with a unique, encrypted biometric identifier stored on it. Their bodies would serve as "passwords." To pass security checkpoints or enter restricted-access areas, a person would swipe the card into a reader and submit to a biometric identification, such as looking into a camera. If the photograph and card image match, the person could proceed.

In an interview, Atkinson said such systems might not have prevented last month's attacks. "None of these systems would stop a 'suicide sleeper' who has a legal driver's license in the United States," Atkinson said. But "this would help with a lot of other related problems."

A facial-recognition system, linked to a database of pictures of suspected terrorists, might have prevented some of the suspected attackers from making it onto their flights Sept. 11.

"In the case of at least two of the hijackers of the Sept. 11 crashes, authorities had pictures of them as suspects prior to the attack, and airport cameras actually photographed them," Atkinson wrote. "A facial biometrics recognition system could possibly have identified these individuals as they entered the airport, allowing security to detain them." But use of such technology troubles privacy advocates. They note that security cameras already cause people to act differently than they normally would.

"Facial recognition in public not only watches you, but identifies you," said Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "It's an added layer of invasiveness that can impinge upon freedoms."

To be effective, facial recognition must rely on an extensive database, Hoofnagle noted. Who is added to a database, who is removed and who makes those decisions raises major concerns, he said. For example, people could be added solely for their political views, he said.

But Atkinson said simple measures, such as encrypting nontravel-related information on smart cards and erasing photographs taken by facial-recognition cameras, could easily deal with privacy concerns.

"The privacy community has gotten so used to rejecting any new technology," Atkinson said. "It's an almost reflexive response. It makes no sense on this issue, I think."

Scanning biometrics' potential

A new report issued by the Progressive Policy Institute requests that any new aviation security legislation:

* Require airports and airlines, with federal funding, to adopt passenger and employee identification systems using smart cards and biometric authentication systems.

* Create a facial-identification system in airports linked to databases of suspected terrorists and other wanted criminals.

* Make any new biometric or smart card applications compatible with governmental and commercial applications.

Source: Progressive Policy Institute

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