Israel uses hands-on approach for trusted travelers

Biometrics-based system offers lessons for security officials

Because of Israel's history and location, security has always been a priority for the country's authorities, even as they try to maintain the routines of everyday life. The tension between those interests resurfaced in 1998 when officials sought a way to handle the surge of Holy Land pilgrims expected for the millennium celebrations.

Ben Gurion Airport, the country's only international facility, was aging and already strained by the millions of passengers who annually passed through it. Israel's solution was a trusted-traveler program that resembles the U.S. Homeland Security Department's Passenger Accelerated Service System (INSPASS), which was already in place at several U.S. international airports.

U.S. officials launched INSPASS as a response to a 1990 law that required DHS to cut waiting periods in airport immigration halls to no more than 45 minutes. INSPASS allowed trusted foreign passengers who had previously been cleared to use special kiosks where they could quickly verify their identities using hand-recognition biometrics.

The Ben Gurion system, in operation within three months after its contract award in April 1998, quickly enrolled more than 160,000 citizens and used four kiosks to process them. The airport now has 22 kiosks — eight for departures and 14 for arrivals — to handle 250,000 enrollees.

The Israelis' experience offers U.S. security officials some lessons about the influence of cultural and policy contexts on the development of technology-based security systems.

How it works

At Ben Gurion, passengers who want to participate in the trusted traveler program receive a smart card when they enroll. The card stores an array of encrypted personal information, from criminal histories to the dozens of measurements of fingers, knuckle shapes and distances between joints in the hands.

As part of the flight check-in process, trusted passengers go to a kiosk and swipe their smart cards through a reader and then place their hands over a biometric scanner.

Once the scanner verifies a passenger's identity, the system prints a coupon that allows the passenger to whisk through the rest of the check-in process.

Since 1998, the kiosks have successfully handled about 5 million transactions. For members of the program, the system cuts wait times from two hours to as little as 10 seconds during peak periods.

"It helped that Israelis were fairly enamored and interested in biometrics to start with, and there is no real social stigma there to using hand geometry," said Jeff Poulson, a technical consultant at EDS' Access Controls Solutions Division, which developed and installed the INSPASS and Ben Gurion systems. "There are other biometrics that are just as good, such as fingerprints, but they are associated with criminality and hand geometry is less threatening."

The Israelis had another purpose for the Ben Gurion program, Poulson said, because they were also looking to install biometrics systems for border control. They considered the airport project to be a fairly controlled environment in which to evaluate the technology.

Because of the success of the Ben Gurion program, the Israelis have expanded biometrics to several border points.

The Israel Airports Authority is also working closely with the Israeli National Police, who vet the travelers who can enroll in the program, Poulson said. That collaboration helps ensure that the program has the support of influential stakeholders.

But U.S. airports may not be able to deploy the same systems.

When Jonathan Tucker, senior research fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies' Center for Nonproliferation Studies, visited Israel several years ago to investigate the country's counterterrorism practices, he noted the effectiveness of airline passenger screening.

Screening is central to Israel's security approach, he said, because it aims to ferret out individuals with terrorist intentions. By letting people who have been deemed to pose no threat pass through the automated system, officials can more closely check individual travelers, including conducting one-on-one interviews that can last as long as an hour.

The United States, however, has traditionally given priority to screening baggage rather than people. And the much higher volume of travelers passing through major U.S. airports makes Israeli techniques, such as in-depth personal interviews, impractical, Tucker said.

The Transportation Security Administration began testing its trusted-traveler system last year. It attempts to expedite the process for U.S. residents rather than foreign visitors and uses fingerprints and iris scans rather than hand geometry. But in all other respects, it's similar to the Ben Gurion system.

Tucker said he has concerns about the system because it resembles a federal government security clearance process, complete with a background investigation, "which could pose privacy concerns for many people."

Indeed, those concerns have caused a stir. As soon as TSA announced its trusted-traveler test program, it received privacy complaints from the Electronic Privacy Information Center and others, which continue to dog the agency.

The Ben Gurion system has been recognized as a jewel in the biometrics crown. The airport authority received AFCEA International's inaugural Golden Link award in 2001, and other airports are already emulating the technology.

Poulson said biometrics tests are under way at airports in Frankfurt, Germany; Amsterdam, Netherlands; London; and the United States.

"People have become more sensitized to biometrics since [the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,] and the traveling public is becoming more familiar and comfortable with them," he said.

Security concerns will likely persist, he added, but people want the increased security and convenience that a system such as Ben Gurion's could provide.


Fast Facts
  • Israel's Ben Gurion Airport is the country's only international facility, and passenger volume is increasing rapidly. Terminal 3, which opened in November 2004, is built to handle as many as 16 million passengers a year.
  • The trusted-traveler program has enrolled about 250,000 frequent Israeli fliers.
  • The airport initially started with four biometric inspection kiosks, and 22 now exist. They handle about 5 million transactions each year.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.


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