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Programs Aim For Safer Travel, Shorter Lines

Tests use biometrics and smart cards to ID frequent fliers and transport workers

The Transportation Security Administration last week launched two test programs that use voluntarily contributed personal data to combat terrorism. The Registered Traveler program in Boston and a national transportation-worker identification-credentialing program rely on data volunteered to TSA by passengers and workers, a move to circumvent privacy concerns that have plagued previous transportation-security efforts.

Frequent fliers who volunteer personal information for the Registered Traveler program are promised shorter lines. Photo by Darren McCollester/Newsmakers

Frequent fliers who volunteer personal information for the Registered Traveler program are promised shorter lines.

Photo by Darren McCollester/Newsmakers
The Registered Traveler program arrived last week at Boston's Logan International Airport, the fourth of five airports to test the program. In Boston, TSA is working with American Airlines to sign up 2,000 of the company's frequent fliers. In return for providing TSA and its contractor, EDS, with the personal data, including name, address, phone number, date and place of birth, and fingerprint and iris scans, American Airlines promises frequent fliers shorter lines and fewer security hassles.

TSA checks the personal data against federal law-enforcement databases. EDS workers collect the biometric data, which is accessible only by EDS and TSA employees.

Critics question how effective the program will be if the government doesn't create a centralized database of suspected terrorists. A centralized database would use a consistent set of rules and policies for defining a terrorist suspect, rather than differing criteria established by various intelligence agencies, says Ari Schwartz, associate director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a nonprofit organization backed by several large technology companies that promotes the Internet as a tool to foster democracy. "We need more reliable data to draw from," he says.

By the end of this month, American Airlines will implement the program at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. It's already in place at Northwest Airlines' terminal at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, United Airlines at Los Angeles International Airport, and Continental Airlines at Houston's Bush Intercontinental Airport. TSA's goal is to have 2,000 registered travelers at each location for the 90-day pilot programs. Some of the programs issue travelers smart cards containing their personal information, while others rely on biometric fingerprint and iris scans combined with more traditional forms of ID.

The program has been a success for Northwest Airlines, which since June 28 has signed up 2,400 of its most-frequent customers--those who travel at least 75,000 miles per year. On any given day, between 60 and several hundred passengers use Northwest's Registered Traveler biometric machines, according to the airline.

TSA last week also introduced a seven-month pilot program to provide up to 200,000 truckers, dock workers, airline employees, and other transportation workers with universal Transportation Worker Identification Credentials, smart-card technology that gives workers access to secure areas at transportation facilities nationwide. Credentials will be issued after the agency screens volunteers' personal information against government anti-terrorism databases.

The credentialing program, which is being tested at 40 sites across six states, includes biometric technology that scans fingerprints and irises, as well as smart cards with integrated chips.

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