Blueprint for Security

April 1, 2003
Emerging biometric technologies have helped to simplify passenger flow and tighten security. Such measures are likely to impact the ground support community not just in terms of passenger handling, but also employee access control, writes Richard Rowe.

While it may sound like the beginning of a science-fiction story, passengers and airport workers could soon be using their own unique blueprints to proceed through an airport or gain access to high-risk areas rather than traditional passports and swipe cards. The push to plug airport security gaps since 9/11 has seen the need to analyse the possible integration of biometric solutions into airport security systems. Areas that present the greatest opportunities include access control, protection of passengers in and around airports, and passenger and air crew identification. Such focus has seen biometric solutions – technology that uses physiological characteristics for identity verification purposes – edge into mainstream thinking. Now, many skeptics are being won over by a raft of positive trials around the world that demonstrate the technology’s ability to perform in the demanding airport environment.

Simplifying Passenger Travel

IATA is championing biometric solutions through its Simplifying Passenger Travel (SPT) project – a collaborative industry group of more than 60 airports, airlines, government authorities and suppliers. SPT board members are convinced that biometrics will form the cornerstone of future passenger programmes and consider it a key enabling technology to facilitate automated and remote passenger checks. This, in turn, could reduce delays at common airport bottlenecks, such as check-in counters, boarding gates, and border control stations — all the way through to security checkpoints. The industry group has an ambitious vision: that of incorporating biometric technology as part of a one-stop check process for passengers passing through the world’s airports. In future, it says, passengers could carry a data-packed travel device that would be used from the moment they make a flight reservation right through to the point when baggage is retrieved at the final destination.

“Biometrics are key to achieving the SPT vision,” explains Melanie Lauckner, SPT Programme Manager, based in Montreal. “The automated one-step check on departure which clears the passenger through their entire journey will only be feasible if the government authorities are satisfied with the remote identification of that passenger. This is why SPT has focussed so strongly on government participation in the programme and in the use of biometrics. It is the real-time transmission of information between airlines and governments in the airport environment which enables the one-stop check.”

Test Beds

To date, the three most popular biometric technologies involve identity verification through the use of finger/hand, facial, and iris recognition. Facial recognition is considered the least intrusive and is currently favoured by ICAO as the best suited for passport and border control applications.

At San Francisco International Airport, biometric technology such as hand geometry readers are hardly considered “emerging” as they have been a part of its airport-wide access control system since 1991. Developed by Recognition Systems Inc. (RSI), the biometrics division of Ingersoll-Rand, hand readers are used to verify the identity of more than 18,000 airport workers and secure around 180 doors at the airport. Since their introduction, the hand readers have produced more than 100 million biometric verifications, with more than 50,000 produced on an average day.

The hand readers are a highly visible component in San Francisco’s access control system. An employees has a template made of his or her hand geometry and the information is then routed to the selected doors that person is allowed to go through. The thinking is that access control regulations require airports to validate people gaining access to the airfield, not a piece of plastic.

Overseas, the Australian Customs Services (ACS) is running a facial recognition test bed for automated border control using Qantas aircrew at Sydney Internation­al Airport. Although much press attention was generated when two Japanese executives fooled the system at an exhibition earlier this year, the ACS is keen to roll the service out to Australian passengers.

The system, known as SmartGate®, uses face recognition photo-matching technology to automatically verify the identity of aircrew passing the border control point. Each SmartGate “kiosk” performs the kind of face-to-passport check normally undertaken by a customs officer.

At the kiosk, air crew place their passport on a reader and look at a camera. After customs and immigration checks have been performed by the system and the facial features of the person have been compared to the stored features, the gate opens. The whole process takes less than 10 seconds, reports the ACS — ensuring the twin goal of efficient processing and a high quality of border control.

SmartGate has processed more than 3,000 Qantas aircrew since its introduction in November 2002. ACS finds that the technology is sufficiently robust to take into account complex variables, including age, ethnicity, expression and changes in appearance such as facial hair and glasses.

Trials have been so successful that there is now talk of extending the SmartGate system to other airlines and Australian airports this year. New Zealand officials are also reported to be considering the use of similar technology at their airports.

The Canadian CANPASS-Air project, and a joint initiative with the U.S. known as NEXUS-Air, will use iris recognition for border control. In the case of CANPASS, iris recognition technology will be used to authenticate pre-approved, low-risk travellers and clear them through express lane customs and immigration. Travellers wishing to join CANPASS-Air will be subject to a background security check and charged an annual fee of C$50. Express lane kiosks should be operational at Toronto Pearson and Vancouver airports by the end of March.

The ‘Eyes’ Have It

Perhaps the most telling trial to date was a six-month pilot of iris recognition technology for automated border control measures at London Heathrow last year. Initiated by the SPT group, and managed by the UK Immigration Department, the trial was supported by BAA and involved frequent flyers originating from North America on Virgin Atlantic and British Airways. Using the iris recognition technology product, JetStream™, from U.S. supplier EyeTicket, some 2,000 invited frequent flyers arriving in the UK were allowed to enter passport control quite literally, in the blink of an eye. JetStream stations were set up in the immigration halls of Terminals 3 and 4, from where the two airlines operate their North Atlantic routes. Passengers enrolled by looking into a video camera, which takes a close-up image of their iris. Digital pattern data is extracted from the image, digitally encoded, sorted, and then later compared with the passenger’s unique iris pattern on entering the immigration hall. On arrival at the airport, enrolled passengers glance at a camera about 10 inches away to have their identity verified. If the passenger’s iris pattern matches that of the stored digital code, a ticket is printed, a barrier opens, and they are free to enter the UK. Passengers’ average time to be admitted by immigration was around 12 seconds. Although the trial was used essentially to help simplify a passenger’s journey through the airport on arrival, there are clear applications in the long-term for using such technology for wider security related benefits.

Since October 2001, Amsterdam Schiphol Airport has used iris scanning as part of its Privium project, a premium package for mostly EU nationals that includes expedited border crossing, check-in and special car parking privileges on payment of an annual fee.

The system uses IrisRecognition™ software from U.S. -based Iridian Technologies licensed to Dutch security specialists, Joh. Enschede. Passengers use customised kiosks to accept their encrypted Privium smart cards; the kiosks identify and verify passengers by cross-referencing a real-time iris scan with each person’s pre-registered iris data stored on the card. Privium members, almost 6,000 at last count, now bypass lengthy immigration and border control lines. Similarly, border control agents can concentrate their manual passport examinations on unknown passengers rather than those registered “knowns” whose background checks reveal no security concerns.

Privium’s success has prompted the Schiphol Group to form Dartagnan – a joint venture company with Joh. Enschede – to market biometric security applications in aviation and other industries. As Schiphol’s Harald Bresser, who also serves as Regional Director for Dartagnan, elaborates, projects have already been conducted, including a pilot programme at New York JFK’s Terminal 4. In this case, iris recognition software was installed to protect a door to the tarmac at the terminal’s international arrivals hall. The voluntary test programme enrolled some 300 of JFK’s 13,000 employees. “The terminal operator is looking for a total solution and one that combines different biometric technologies, perhaps in layers with fingerprint readers and facial recognition,” explains Bresser.

Choosing a Solution

Adopting any kind of technology standard is some way off and much will depend on the application; clearly, individual airports could adopt stand-alone biometrics for on-airport access control, but such a pick and mix approach would not be ideal for international passenger-related applications.

What is certain is that biometrics will play a much larger role for the ground service community in the future, not only in terms of passenger handling but also day-to-day access control for ramp workers. The development by EyeTicket of a solution known as EyePass is a case in point: the somewhat Orwellian access control software identifies pilots, flight attendants and airport employees and manages their movement around an airport.

“There will be an impact on the ground handling business in terms of implementing automated check-in with biometrics for passengers,” confirms Lauckner. “We have updated the ground handling community on an annual basis through the IATA Ground Handling Council and it is important for the community to realise that this is not science fiction, but coming very soon.”