Sunday, December 16, 2012

Fingerprinting and Biometrics at Airports

I was unpleasantly surprised to see longer than usual lines at the international port of entry at O’Hare this February. My flight connected me to O’Hare International at Chicago from Schiphol Airport at Amsterdam, Netherlands. It was a long flight and it wasn’t apparent to me the reason for the delay in processing passengers. A huge line of people with hand luggage zigzagged what appeared to be a large hall, the end of the line fading in the distance. I was tired and wanted to get to my apartment and I did not believe I would ever get there at this rate.

In a 2004 article published on New Scientist, Will Knight reports that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) initiated the installation of a fingerprinting system. A total of 115 airports have the biometric security equipment installed (Knight, 2004).A DHS officer made the comment to Knight that “it takes each finger scan takes just three seconds and pilot schemes produced just one error in every thousand checks” (Knight, 2004).

The early morning long lines brought back memories of the traditional waits outside the U.S. Consulate general in India where the visas are issued. It is said that heat, rain nor storms get in the way of ticket seekers to paradise itself – the United States of America. Visa applicants are happy to divulge their fingerprint for an entry permit into the USA.

Knight (2004) cites Bruce Schneier, founder of the US security consultancy firm Counterpane, who believes that gathering more information through this method is only collecting more data while the problem with security lays in a lack of intelligence not the amount of data . Schneier believes that there is enough data already available but not enough intelligence to process it. He goes on to explain that the terrorists who crashed airplanes into buildings on September 11,2001 had valid passports and were not on previous terrorist watch-lists.

The U.S. immigration officer asked me to wet my left and right index finger and place it on the fingerprint sensor, just like the Visa officer had asked me to do in India. The visa had been issued at the end of the day – a very long day. There was a camera placed along with the fingerprint sensor. No pictures were taken in either place. I placed my finger, the immigration officer instructed me to wait. The computer system looked up my fingerprint compared it with their databases in what seemed like an eternity. Finally, the immigration office smiled back at me and let me proceed. I still had to go to baggage collection and customs; I feared more divulgence of impressions from body parts. Thankfully there were none. After ninety minutes of baby-steps through the immigration lines and multi-finger scans at the Chicago O’Hare airport I was free to step into the “Land of the free, home of the brave”.