'Trusted Traveler' may streamline airport security

Symbol Technologies, a major manufacturer of wireless data terminals and bar code scanners used to track baggage and passengers at airports, is working with partner technology companies to develop a security screening system to identify airline passengers, a company executive disclosed last Friday.

The effort under development, called the Trusted Traveler System, would allow pre-screened travelers to pass through airport security checkpoints quickly, avoiding the long lines and congestion that have become synonymous with airport security in the wake of Sept. 11.

Based on the group's preliminary plans, people who applied for the program would be pre-screened by the airlines, having their profiles checked against a number of state and federal databases. Once at the airport, passengers would be identified, either with biometric devices such as hand-scanners or with something as simple as a state driver license. At that time, the system would be able to cross-reference the passenger's identification with resources such as the FBI watch list and a federal passenger profiling system known as CAPS, or Computer-Assisted Passenger Screening.

"It's hard to find the bad guys, but if we know who the good guys are, then we can streamline security for those people," said Tom Roslak, senior director of airport and airline applications at Holtsville, New York-based Symbol Technologies.

Participating in the group with Symbol Technologies are IT companies that make database software and manage system integration, Roslak said.

"We work with airlines and large integration partners to create the system. Our devices create a common fabric and are the eyes and ears of the system," he said.

The Washington Times and Washington Post newspapers last month each reported that an effort was under way to develop a security ID card for airline passengers that would rely on biometrics identification and be linked to government databases. The effort is headed up by a federal task force called the Credential Direct Agency Group (CDAG), the papers reported.

The system Symbol is working on would use a similar approach. It could end up looking like a program used by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to speed international travelers through airports, according to Roslak. That system uses hand-scanners to identify passengers who registered ahead of time in the security system.

The group will present its research to airlines and eventually to the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), a federal body created as a result of new airport security legislation, Roslak said.

The idea of passenger identification systems tied to federal databases has prompted some privacy advocates to cry foul. On Friday, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to get the agency to disclose details about the CDAG.

EPIC filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia asking a judge to force the DOT to turn over documents related to the CDAG's work, according to EPIC's court filing.

"There needs to be public and congressional oversight and input (on the measures)," said David Sobel, general counsel for EPIC, who filed the suit. "We want to see this process opened up."

Symbol's role in its own project involves hardware, Roslak said. With a portfolio of nearly 600 patents in the areas of wireless handheld technology and bar code scanning, Symbol already supplies the airlines with a number of security systems. One system used at several major U.S. airports allows airlines to match passenger baggage with the passengers on each flight.

Symbol makes mobile handheld devices and bar-code scanning technology that facilitates the tracking of bags and passengers at airports. "Airlines use our handheld computers to make sure that a bag is only going on a plane if the person is on the plane," Roslak said.

Now a federally enforced program at North American airports, the bag-passenger matching system was first implemented at airports following the 1988 crash of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people on board and on the ground. In that event, a bag carrying a bomb had been placed on the plane by a man who did not board.

"Now, due to recent events, the focus is on how do we know who people are and how do we check their credentials," Roslak said.

Earlier this month, four major IT vendors and integrators -- Oracle Corp., Sun Microsystems Inc., Electronic Data Systems Corp. (EDS) and PwC Consulting -- announced an effort called Known Traveler, which aims to fulfill a similar goal as the Trusted Traveler Program.

However, two major obstacles stand in the way of the efforts. First, who will pay for the systems? Congress has passed legislation that puts airport security in the hands of the federal government. Selling the government on the new technology has been a challenge, Roslak said. Then there is the issue of privacy.

"There are various ways to design these sorts of systems ... if we are going to employ them," EPIC's Sobel said. "Some are more respective of privacy rights than others."

The flip side to that debate emphasizes making the travel experience easier for heavy travelers. "Privacy is always an issue, and I think what some people are looking at in our industry is, basically: We can either streamline the (airport security) process or not," Roslak said.

"If you're willing to identify yourself to a certain degree, then things could be easier. If you don't want to participate, then you have to wait a little longer in line," he said.

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