Next to have their jobs automated: airport-security screeners?
Aviation and government authorities are starting to use machines in lieu of people to verify the identities of fliers by scanning their faces, irises or fingerprints. Dozens of airports in Europe, Australia and the U.S. already employ such technology so passengers can pass immigration checks without showing identification to, or talking with, a person. Now, several major airports in Europe have started using these automated ID checks at security checkpoints and boarding gates.
The use of biometrics—computers verifying identities through physical characteristics—and other automated techniques in airport security is raising questions about the strengths of man versus machine in detecting potential terrorists. Industry officials argue the advantages outweigh the risks, and are promoting automation to help make air travel more efficient and less frustrating—and to save money.
Ultimately, the technology could "get rid of the boarding pass completely," with fliers' faces serving as their tickets, said Michael Ibbitson, chief information officer of London Gatwick Airport. Gatwick performed a trial this year in which it processed 3,000 British Airways fliers without boarding passes. The fliers scanned their irises when checking in, enabling cameras at security checkpoints and boarding gates to automatically recognize them. "We're only just starting to see what biometrics can do," he said.
Proponents, including government and industry officials, say that automation of airport security holds the promise to free human screeners so they can focus on detecting suspicious behavior or monitoring flagged travelers. And for some aspects of security, they say, computers can be more thorough and less error-prone than humans.
Critics, however, worry that relying too much on automation will dull the senses of human screeners and remove the human intuition that can detect when something just doesn't seem right.
"If you're sweating profusely, for example, the person checking your ID would notice. But that computer taking an iris scan wouldn't," said aviation-security expert Arnold Barnett, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A key part of airport security is "looking at all kinds of things that can't be captured by an algorithm," he said.
About 28% of the world's airports now use biometric technology, up from 18% in 2008, according to a survey by SITA, an airline IT provider.
The International Air Transport Association and Airports Council International, two of the industry's largest global trade groups, advocate automation as part of their initiative to streamline airport security. The groups say the lengthy and cumbersome security process is deterring some travelers from flying, and note that the average checkpoint now processes about 150 passengers an hour, half the rate before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Their "Smart Security" program will use new checkpoints at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol and London Heathrow Airport next year to test key proposals, likely including new baggage-screening software that automatically clears some simple objects like clothing without running X-ray images past human screeners.