Though TSA is enthusiastic about the technology, some are still looking for guidance as to how it should be used. “There’s a lot of attention right now on the use of biometrics in the aviation environment, largely because of some isolated incidents that have happened at airports over the past year,” says Carter Morris, senior vice president of transportation security policy at AAAE. “It’s also because airports themselves are looking for some guidance from TSA so that they can start to deploy biometric solutions in a standardized way.”
According to Cammaroto, airports will find out sooner rather than later, saying that a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on biometrics is in the industry’s future. In particular, he says, the goal will be to combine access control and airport ID systems. He points out that TSA “isn’t married” to a particular biometrics system, so airports should have some freedom in choosing what works best for each facility.
Some airports already have biometrics systems in place. In Chicago, O’Hare and Midway just completed installation of a new system in late October, though representatives of the airports declined to comment on any details surrounding the project.
Cammaroto is optimistic that biometrics could solve many of the problems and security lapses airports are currently facing.
“The idea of someone loaning a card, or finding or stealing a card to gain access, will to a great degree be diminished,” Cammaroto says. “That’s a weakness in the system right now that we’ll be addressing.”
Which isn’t to say there’s not enough security currently in place, of course, or that biometrics will be a cure-all.
“Certainly we have other layers of security that provide us greater security beyond merely the card and the swipe and the automated access system that exists today,” Cammaroto says. “We have ramp patrols, we have video cameras, we have the challenge process, we have robust training programs for the persons who have the unescorted access out onto the ramp. It’s not just one thing. Any one thing can certainly fail at some point, whether it’s a technological failure, a power failure, or simply a human failing.”
Cammaroto also notes that Special Committee 207 of RTCA, Inc. is expected to come out with updated guidelines of RTCA DO-230A - Standards for Airport Security Access Control Systems sometime this summer.
Streamlining the Process
Of course, the issue of badging centers around background checks, another issue that TSA is working to improve. According to Morris at AAAE, the AAAE Clearinghouse had actually managed to get the background check time down to some 40 minutes for an employee with no issues. Then, on October 1 of last year, new rules went into effect for additional employee vetting, backing up background check clearances for new airport hires across the country — just in time for the holidays. Since then, things have gotten better. Many seem to view the incident as water under the bridge — though not without its lessons.
“I think folks were a little surprised at how many records were transmitted, how large the population truly was,” Cammaroto says. “There was a learning curve on the airport operators’ side in terms of doing the input; there was a learning on the part of the Clearinghouse and handling the input; and I think internally here within TSA, we probably had the easier lift because we had the system set up and the databases were available. But it was certainly a three-way process and I think we’ve all learned from that and we’re building on that.”
Still, some would have liked more time to adapt. Comments Morris, “What we’d like to see TSA saying is, ‘we’ve been changing these standards on you on a daily basis right up until this October 1 deadline, and we’re going to give you a few months to comply with our new requirements.’”
“All’s well that ends well at this point, but it was a bit of a hassle,” says Eric Byer, vice president of government and industry affairs at NATA.
The AAAE Clearinghouse and TSA seem to view the situation as necessary growing pains, and see such inconveniences as improving efficiency in the future. “Anything you do at 40 different airports that affects a million different people who have badges at airports around the country is going to be disruptive,” says Morris at AAAE. But, he notes, fingerprint-based criminal history record checks have gone from taking 52 days to an average of 40 minutes since the Clearinghouse came onto the scene.