By 1 June, the US Transportation
Security Administration (TSA) will have removed a total of
250 full-body backscatter scanners from US airports – machines that had been criticized
for generating overly detailed passenger images from low-dose x-rays.
The TSA has been replacing those
machines with ones that use millimetre-wave
technology, which generate images that better protect passenger privacy and
rely on radio waves to check for weapons and explosives.
The TSA’s move is yet another example of
how governments across the globe struggle to provide effective security while
ensuring passenger privacy and efficient queues. As such, airports in the US are
trialling new security measures – including facial recognition
and iris scanners – to achieve
this difficult balance.
Currently at checkpoints at Indianapolis
and Tampa airports in Indiana and Florida respectively, the TSA is testing a
system called “managed
inclusion”, in which officials inspect the queues, sometimes with
explosive-sniffing dogs, and select passengers to move into expedited security lanes.
The process – also known as behaviour
detection – involves each passenger having a conversation with an officer, who
asks questions while looking for signs of fear. Passengers who act suspiciously
may be subjected to secondary screening measures, such as more invasive pat
downs. A similar experiment ran for 60 days at Boston’s Logan Airport in 2011. There’s
no word on whether this system will be deployed at other airports nationwide.
As a downside, some critics, such as author
and security consultant Bruce Schneier, have said officers practicing behaviour
detection are prone to racial
and ethnic profiling, or the undue singling out of individuals based on stereotypes.
Such profiling has happened frequently at European airports, according to a
2012 study by the consortium Behavioral Modeling of Security
Since October 2011, the TSA has been testing
PreCheck, a programme in which passengers voluntarily sign up
for background checks in return for access to speedier lanes at checkpoints. Expanded
last year to 35 major US airports, including most recently San Francisco
International and Baltimore Washington, the service is open to elite loyalty
programmes members for Delta, United, American, US Airways and Alaska – the only
five airlines currently participating. PreCheck is free to frequent flyers, but
other travellers may have to pay an application fee to apply via the US Customs
and Border Protection's trusted traveller
programs, such as Global Entry.
Critics of PreCheck say that technical
glitches, such as minor inconsistencies
in how passengers' information is presented in various databases, often prevent
the effective functioning of the system, resulting in passenger delays. For
example, if a paper record has a passenger’s middle initial but the computer
has the passenger’s full middle name, the
system may fail to make a proper match. The TSA counters that it is working
out the kinks in the system.
The checkpoint of the future
In 2011, the International Air Transport
Association proposed a collection of airport security improvements that it
dubbed “the checkpoint of
Passengers vetted via background checks would have a biometric identifier, such
as their fingerprint or iris pattern, in their passport or other travel
document. On arrival at an airport, a traveller would be directed to one of
three lanes – Known Traveller, Normal or Enhanced Security – according to their
biometric identifier. Some travellers would receive intensive levels of checks,
such as hands-on pat-downs, while others would speed through.
At a testing centre at Dallas’ Love
Field Airport, many of IATA’s ideas are being experimented with in a prototype
according to USA Today. One of the highlights is the use of next-generation
security cameras, with lenses that are sharp enough to see the faces of
passengers from far away in much sharper and more recognisable detail than the
present cameras at most US airports and can transmit those high-definition
images to hand-held devices carried by guards patrolling the airport. Currently,
guards mostly use less sophisticated cameras that only broadcast to monitors in
fixed locations. Officials at Love Field hope to deploy the improved
checkpoints within the next three years.
Unfortunately, the new systems are expensive. The TSA’s annual budget is $8
billion a year, an amount that some people deem out of proportion to the
relative threat terrorism presents.
O’Neill is the travel tech
columnist for BBC Travel