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Beyond marshals: Safety in the skies

Robert McCashin, CEO of Identix, says the deployment of biometric technology can help airports screen against hijackers. But he cautions against the potential for abuse.

The seemingly impossible--four hijacked U.S. airplanes, three of them crashing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon--has proven all too real. In the aftermath, airport security has gone under the microscope. And there is a common realization that restoring safety, security and trust to airline travel is critical to our national defense and public psyche.

Already, several initiatives are being put into place to protect the estimated 694 million passengers on U.S. commercial airlines. President Bush and the U.S. Congress have agreed to deploy sky marshals once again on commercial passenger flights. Having sky marshals aboard flights is an important step in deterring terrorism, but most of us are not comfortable with the notion of armed marshals firing weapons at 35,000 feet. It's clear that preventing terrorism must start with prevention on the ground.

Recent FAA guidelines for improving luggage and passenger searches and prohibiting any knife from being carried onto a plane are contributing to this effort. What we now need, however, is a better system of identifying who is entering our nation's airports and airplanes. At least two of the Sept. 11 terrorists were on the Immigration and Naturalization Service terrorist watch list. With appropriate identification technology and access to these federal databases, the airports could have caught these men before they got to the boarding gate, potentially saving thousands of lives.

Technology solutions exist today that can significantly improve the ability of airports and airlines to identify known criminals and terrorists and prevent them from accessing areas where they can cause harm--whether that area is a Boeing 757 or a networked PC. Increasingly these solutions are making use of biometrics--electronically capturing a face, a finger, a hand, an eye or even a voice--to uniquely identify individuals. For example, some U.S. airports already compare images of job candidates' fingerprints to those in the FBI Integrated Automated Identification System (IAFIS) database, which includes the prints of known criminals and terrorists. The process takes only a couple minutes.

Biometrics technology used alone or in combination with other security practices, such as pass codes, pin numbers and digital certificates, can make it significantly more difficult for criminals and terrorists to slip through the cracks at our nation's airports--or for anyone to gain unauthorized access to restricted areas or computer systems.

But the promise of this technology also raises the question, "At what cost to personal privacy?" Fortunately, many of today's biometric solutions place a priority on maintaining individual privacy. At the same time, these technologies provide the flexibility to engage security measures on an as-needed basis to ensure that security is appropriate to a person's particular role--whether that person is an airline employee or a passenger.

Privacy considerations
Governmental regulatory agencies, Congress, and individual airlines and airports developing and implementing any policies that include the use of biometrics-based security must set guidelines on an as-needed basis. We must make sure that security is tailored to, and appropriate for, different groups of people. For example, a biometric image used to confirm that a passenger is not a criminal or terrorist should be immediately destroyed once the search clears a traveler. Similarly, any biometric images used for ticketing or boarding should be attached to items that remain in the control of the passenger, such as the boarding pass or a frequent-flier card.

Airport security begins with people who work there, too. By contrast, biometric images for airline or airport employees most likely will need to be stored in those organizations' computer systems. However, fingerprint technology balances privacy with security for employees, in that individuals must make a conscious decision to participate in the scans. They have a choice, and they know what is happening--unlike other invasive security systems that use surveillance techniques. This same principle is comparable to the one that requires airline pilots to be periodically tested for drug use. The ability to match either a live capture of a biometric image or an image on a employee access card to the computer system will be necessary for ensuring that only the right people get access to appropriate areas or information, protecting both the safety and privacy of passengers.

Of course, the effectiveness of technology is determined by the people who implement it and create policies for it. The technology itself has been around for years. The current challenge is to balance security, safety and government regulatory compliance with the privacy rights of individuals.

Through judicious identification and access-control policies that balance the need for heightened security with individual privacy, we can significantly raise the barrier against terrorist attacks while preserving the individual freedom and rights for which our country is known.