A surge of international airports are now automating security measures, using biometrics to keep tabs on passengers and employees alike. But does this technology actually make catching would-be terrorists any easier? There’s something to be said for the human element of profiling – shifty gaze, sweaty palms and acting “off” are telltale signs that airports security agents are trained to pick up on. They’re also things a fingerprint or iris scanner can’t detect. “Part of keeping travelers safe is looking at all kinds of things that can’t be captured by an algorithm,” says Arnold Barnett, an aviation security expert and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Roughly one quarter of airports worldwide use biometric measures, such as the scanning of some inherent, identifying characteristic like fingerprints, faces or eyes, in some respect. Proponents of the technology point to the fact that it will streamline airport service, cut waiting times, and make boarding passes a thing of the past.
But is the whole thing practical? Gatwick Airport in London conducted an experiment with 3,000 passengers, registering and using their biometric data in lieu of traditional paper boarding passes. The prototype security equipment scanned the subjects’ irises as they passed from checkpoint to checkpoint, identifying and cataloguing them throughout the airport. Though admittedly somewhat Orwellian, the project went off without a hitch. Existing biometric technology can relieve security personnel to do tasks that scanners can’t – like investigating suspicious activity. Experts like Barnett, however, argue that releasing airport security of some of their responsibilities will reduce their ability to stay sharp and attentive when duty calls.
Overall, European airports seem to be one step ahead of the United States on the biometric movement. There is not to say that the US isn’t making headway – biometric measures have been set up to verify employees and passengers on PreCheck, a TSA program that allows select frequent flyers to receive expedited security screenings.
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