DOT to pursue biometrics

The new Transportation Security Administration plans to start pilot projects in airports nationwide to test various biometric technologies that could make air travel safer.

Go Team No. 9 — one of about 36 transportation task forces formed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — completed its analysis last month of biometric technologies, which use techniques such as facial recognition, fingerprinting and eye scans to identify people. The team has recommended that TSA pursue biometrics for employees, surveillance, passengers, pilots, flight crew and air-traffic controllers. It isn't pushing a full-scale deployment at this point, but rather a trial of several possibilities.

"We're going to spread it out and get a look at a lot of different things," said Rick Lazarick, an integration lead for airport security technology with the Federal Aviation Administration. The effort will require a systems integrator, Lazarick said at the Bio.metric Consortium Conference Feb. 13.

Most of the biometric technologies aren't long-term, said Lazarick, adding, "We're demonstrating new and emerging technologies so there's an information base."

"They're moving deliberately because they have a security problem," said Robert Nabors, vice president for enterprise solutions at EDS' government division. "They want to get it right the first time, the right amount of technology at the right cost."

Air-traffic controllers are ready for biometrics, particularly for verification purposes. "It will bring that added layer of security and safety, and speed up the airport process," said John Carr, president of the Air Traffic Controllers Association. "From our perspective, it is high time and past due that we have some sort of identification scheme that lets us know who is friend and who is foe."

Trusted passenger cards, also dubbed the EZ-Pass, won't be part of the pilot programs, which focus on identification and threat assessment. Government and airline officials, however, are working on the technology, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge said Feb 7.

"We're open to the idea of a smart card for frequent fliers if it can be proven that it will not compromise security," TSA spokesman Paul Takemoto said.

That philosophy extends to other areas as well. "We won't compromise security for the sake of efficiency," Takemoto said. TSA will launch the programs in at least 20 airports, as federally mandated, in about six months, Lazarick said. The Transportation Department has received an appropriation with a ceiling of $23 million for short-term demonstrations. Vendors have already answered the call for biometrics by presenting airlines, airports and agencies with a range of options. For instance, EDS has developed a working prototype that features several technologies, such as facial recognition, hand geometry, and fingerprint and iris scans.

The current FAA ID cards are easy to counterfeit, Carr said. As a result, the familiarization training program, which allows air-traffic controllers to observe flight procedures by riding in cockpits, has been suspended. Pilots also have lost reciprocal jumping privileges that allow them to commute on other airlines.

Carr brushed aside privacy issues, saying, "It comes with the territory. We work for the federal government."

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