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Commentary: Biometrics is no cure-all

Gartner experts say it's unlikely that new identification technologies will result in airport security methods that are universally acceptable or effective.

By Laura Behrens, Gartner Analyst

Airlines in the United States and Europe are testing new ways to identify their passengers and employees. Those tests will likely lead to improvements, but GartnerG2 believes it is unlikely that they will result in airport security methods that are universally acceptable or effective.

GartnerG2 has predicted that airlines,

See news story:
Biometrics may scan air travelers
financial institutions and governments would lead the introduction of biometrics technologies. All three entities are experienced at issuing plastic cards that many people are willing to carry and use--namely, ATM cards, drivers' licenses and frequent flier cards. It would seem a logical step for them to roll out smart cards with biometrics tools.

However, the mere use of smart cards won't make an environment secure, for several reasons:

• Biometrics alone do nothing to stop prohibited items from getting through airport security. However, biometrics might lead to greater care inspecting certain passengers or cargo, which in turn could lead to the interception of more contraband.

• Biometric cards and tokens are not ubiquitous. GartnerG2 research shows 35 percent of American consumers never use an ATM, and more than half (58 percent) never travel by air, much less use a frequent flier card. Almost 33 percent of Americans don't even have a driver's license, according to the Federal Highway Administration.

• Any method that requires individual participation will likely meet with some resistance. GartnerG2 research shows most Americans are reluctant to use smart cards--chiefly because they don't understand them and because they are afraid of their personal data being stolen. Resistance based on unfamiliarity will fade as more smart cards and tokens crop up in people's daily lives, but fear of hackers is more widespread and harder to quell.

Recognizing those difficulties, some airports are testing passive surveillance methods that include video cameras and face-recognition software. Some of those programs claim to have overcome attempts to change facial features, but not perfectly.

Error rates are an important barrier to active and passive biometric technologies. A false negative rate of even 1 percent could allow at least one bad guy to board virtually any full commercial jet flight, and four or more on a jumbo jet. If airlines thought terrorists were trying to get on every airplane, that seemingly tiny error rate would stop a biometrics-only plan cold.

Conversely, an equally tiny 1 percent false positive rate could result in at least one innocent person on every flight being falsely matched to someone in a database of suspicious people. Public opinion polls show Americans' post-Sept. 11 willingness to trade convenience for security is already beginning to wane. Imagine how quickly it would evaporate in the face of thousands of false accusations every day.

Airlines and airports have a lot to gain from the use of biometrics technologies, particularly among airline employees and frequent fliers who have strong incentives, such as measurable time savings, to use them. But such technologies are only part of much more far-reaching changes that must take place to significantly improve security and public confidence in the air travel system.

(For related commentary on biometrics for security applications, see Gartner.com.)

Entire contents, Copyright © 2002 Gartner, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.