TSA starts biometric pilot

A pilot program to expedite passenger screening and beef up airline security has come to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, following earlier launches at four other airports.

Transportation Security Administration officials announced today the launch of their Registered Traveler pilot program, which aims to enroll 10,000 frequent air travelers by obtaining their digital fingerprints and scanning their irises.

DHS Secretary Tom Ridge hailed the use of biometrics in programs such as Registered Traveler as "the 21st century way to verify ID." Program volunteers approach a designated checkpoint lane with a kiosk, undergo biometric scanning for entry into a database and proceed to another checkpoint for screening.

Speeding up the process of checking in and boarding planes by reducing "very discrete pieces of time" associated with each traveler is one way that DHS officials hope the program will streamline airport operations, according to Ridge.

Ridge said that the program received $10 million last year and that the fiscal 2005 budget includes a measure for $15 million. He said that officials are exploring the potential of making Registered Traveler a shared cost program if it is to go nationwide.

There are signs that some travelers, faced with a trade-off between convenience and personal privacy, may choose to share more information with the government if allowed to skip secondary airport screening. Volunteers currently provide TSA with their name, address, phone number, birth date and biometric identifiers. Ridge said that some business travelers have indicated that they would pay a fee to enroll in an expedited screening process and would even volunteer additional personal information.

The data is stored in a secure, encrypted format in TSA's Office of National Risk Assessment, headed by its new director, Justin Oberman, said TSA Administrator David Stone. The data entered will be periodically rechecked, according to Ridge, adding that as it is now, the data is not failsafe.

A continuing resolution to fund the government is expected, but Ridge said he hopes lawmakers will author a discreet homeland security appropriations bill. Of 13 spending bills, only the Defense appropriations bill has been passed. The DHS appropriations bill awaits a full Senate vote before heading to conference.

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