Before September 11, biometrics was just one of the hundreds of new high-tech buzzwords flooding into the English language, and one that was meaningless to most people in the aviation industry. But experts say that over the next 12 months, few of us will not have experienced, and benefited from, its effects.
Put simply, biometrics technology allows the virtually instant and positive recognition of anyone from just one of their physical characteristics, such as their fingerprints, eyes, voice, facial features and even their gait. These characteristics are essentially unique to each of us, and thereby lend themselves to advanced computer “pattern recognition” techniques.
But what’s so new about checking fingerprints? What’s new is that while accurately matching traditional fingerprint comparisons can take hours, even days, biometrics makes almost instantaneous matches. One of the early aviation applications of biometrics is expected to be in ramp access control.
In this application, individuals authorized to be on the airport ramp will insert a personalized “smart card,” pre-coded with their fingerprint’s 50 unique characteristics, into a card reader beside any of the ramp access doors and then place their fingertip on the unit’s one-inch scanning screen. No ink is required. If the two data sets match, the door unlocks. Attempts to use a stolen or borrowed card are rejected, with a silent alert going instantly to security and the characteristics of the “illegal” fingerprint recorded by the system for later positive identification of the intruder.
The alerting system will likely also immediately trigger a video camera similar to those used in ATM machines, except that its recorded images will also pass through a software program that measures up to 250 points of the user’s facial geometry–for example, eye socket curvature; the relative spacing of cheekbone, chin, nose and ears; and skull shape, all of which are essentially unalterable and none of which can easily be disguised. (A long-haired, bearded individual whose stored mug shot shows a clean-shaven, crew-cut person will be immediately matched.)
The system can compare new pictures to national and international “face print” databases, at a claimed rate of more than a million per second. In mass production, the camera chips, capable of producing “magazine quality” photographs for instant display at security exit control points, are forecast to cost less than $20.
Already in use by law-enforcement agencies in the U.S. and by Canada’s Mounted Police, face-print technology has also been adopted by casinos in Las Vegas and elsewhere to identify cheats and other undesirables. The advantage of facial matching is that it is totally passive, requiring no initiation by those being scanned.
Predictably, this has resulted in protests from civil rights groups, but a landmark court decision in San Diego in August ruled that people in public spaces have no reasonable expectation of privacy, and therefore taking their pictures is not unconstitutional.
Many security experts believe that eye recognition could eventually replace fingerprints as the major biometric technology for airport staff and airline passenger monitoring and control. These systems measure up to 200 characteristics of either the eye’s retina or its iris, with proponents claiming that only DNA matching is more accurate.
AIN tested an iris-scanning system at a recent airport conference. We first logged in by looking directly into an encoding device for around 10 sec from a distance of about 18 in. Then, moving to a nearby interrogating device and looking at its screen caused it, almost instantaneously, to print out a boarding pass with the correct name, flight number, gate and departure time.
In initial operational use, the encoders would be built into automated ticket machines and initiated with a personal smart card–or a coded frequent traveler card–with interrogators positioned at other locations, including the boarding gate. To check this application, we returned to the interrogator an hour later and were given instant approval to proceed, but the unit, correctly, did not print a second boarding pass.
Interestingly, the eye-recognition concept was developed under airline and airport sponsorship well before the New York and Washington terrorist attacks, and was aimed at speeding passenger handling and throughput in crowded terminals. A test system installed at the Charlotte/Douglas (N.C.) Airport in May last year is said to have processed nearly 500,000 passengers and personnel “flawlessly” since that time, although security was a relatively minor project consideration.
Since September 11, however, the security potential of biometric systems has become their major future benefit to aviation.