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finger_scanSecurity solutions to criminal and terror threats are multifaceted.  The human element is a critical component but technology can play an important supporting role.  Biometrics to identify and track people on the move is one way to strengthen security.


The most common types of biometrics are fingerprint and iris scans.  Neither is new.  This kind of technology has been in use and also a part of popular culture for decades.  As you may recall, Batman used a portable retina scan device in his Batmobile to identity the Penguin (1966) and in Diamonds are Forever, James Bond thwarts the fingerprint scanner in the dressing room of Tiffany Case (1971).


Fingerprints are a unique physical characteristic that can’t be forged.  At least, they are difficult to replicate.  There was a case back in 2009 of a South Korean woman who although previously deported, successfully entered Japan by covering her fingertips with a special tape she bought from a broker who also supplied the matching fake passport.


Any system can be thwarted.  Unlike humans, machines are predictable and that’s a vulnerability.


In any event, biometrics are becoming common place.  In addition to playing a security role, biometrics are meant to move travelers along faster.  Earlier this year, Delta Airlines acquired a stake in Clear, a leading U.S. biometric identity platform.  Their primary motivation is to hasten Delta passengers through the still arduous gridlock that is the TSA.  Today, Clear kiosks are located at 16 U.S. domestic airports, and are also in use at large sports venues.  Clear customers pay an annual fee for the chance to skip document verification and go directly to security checkin or if enrolled, to PreCheck.


Is Clear a success?  Depends who you ask.  Sixty-eight Yelp reviews (yep, it’s on Yelp) rate it an average of 2.5 stars.  The biggest user complaints relate to weak customer service, poor procedures and implementation.    One critic of the Clear program states that the annual fee of $179 lets him skip over 100 people in line but he still has to take off his shoes and, an untested third party has his personal data on file.  Indeed, many consumers are concerned about the widespread use of biometrics and fear a loss of privacy to say nothing of the potential for hacking.


Of course, another question that is not addressed in the Yelp reviews is whether the system is making travel safer.  Is Clear a security success?  The jury is out on that question, too.  Logically, if many travelers can be pre-vetted that leaves more time for screeners to look more closely at the non-vetted population.


But whether a computer or a human is trying to verify that a person is who they say they are, let’s not forget that it’s not the same thing as verifying a person’s intent.  Intent is a different matter altogether and far more important.  If a traveler is not on a no fly list, has not been flagged by any agency with intelligence to indicate there’s a threat…biometrics would not be useful.  The only hope is to behaviorally and contextually assess for indicators of real threat.


While biometrics and for that matter many different technological applications can be valuable in security, over dependence on it can be dangerous.  If only keeping people safe and secure were as easy as a scan.  The last thing we need is to develop a laid-back attitude towards security, the very area where constant vigilance is essential.