Biometric Update

June 3, 2005
Pursuant to the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act passed in late 2004, The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is preparing to offer guidance to airports on biometric technologies for use as part of their access control systems. Here’s a discussion on the program’s status, along with a call for using biometrics at AOA access points.

While the act’s language reads like the over-simplified approach to a complex problem that is typical of sweeping legislation, it does set the groundwork for much needed information on how to apply biometrics to the airport environment to enhance security and even improve operations. TSA has not issued the “guidance” that was due 90 days after the bill was signed in late December 2004. The agency has instead taken a different approach.

Rather than issuing guidance based on old data and anecdotal information, the agency has concentrated on developing a protocol that will be the basis for testing biometric technologies in a way that will yield performance results which will give a reasonable indication of how those technologies will perform in the airport environment.

It’s too early to tell whether or not the testing, which should begin later this year, will provide the data which airports and the biometric industry need, but the intent of the TSA is in the right place.

At this point, we do know that biometrics enhance airport security and perform in the difficult security environment of airports. By authenticating individuals who are attempting to access the most secure areas in an airport, biometrics offer the best available method for protecting the air operations areas and the SIDA.

Airport biometric pioneers such as San Francisco International Airport and Toledo Express Airport have already proven the concept. The TSA tests will give airports the assurance that they can move forward with security enhancements without the risk of regulatory conflict over the technologies they deploy.

What’s next? The TSA will publish its final test protocol any time now. Following that, industry will submit technologies for testing, which could begin as early as August 2005. Based on drafts of the protocol, this testing could take four to six months. When results are available, TSA will publish for airports a list of “qualified technologies.” It’s expected that multiple test flights will follow to accommodate emerging technologies. Once the test protocol is complete and testing is underway, TSA should, in conjunction with the biometrics industry, NIST, and other resources of biometric expertise, provide education to airports, addressing how biometrics are best utilized in the airport environment.

It’s imperative to understand that different biometric technologies fit different applications, and that one technology may not be the best product for all of the possible applications at the airport. A blended approach may be necessary to take full advantage of the security opportunity presented by the use of biometrics.

Further, to fully implement the spirit of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, the government must produce and fund a mandate for the use of biometrics on AOA doors and other secure areas in an airport. Only this will ensure that airports of all sizes are able to protect our most valuable and most vulnerable assets at the airport.