How does the officer on airport security lines who compares government-issued identification with boarding passes know both documents are authentic? Would it be more foolproof, and faster, if the process were automated?
Those are some of the questions driving a pilot program the Transportation Security Administration launched in recent weeks at three U.S. airports, including Houston's George Bush Intercontinental.
The federal agency has placed 30 machines at the head of security lines at these airports that are designed to efficiently ensure that the thousands of driver's licenses, passports and boarding passes checked every day aren't phony.
Usually, that task is handled by a TSA officer equipped with no more than a hand-held black light or magnifying glass.
The pilot program, launched in the wake of media reports about how easy it is to obtain fake IDs, suggests the current process may be a chink in airports' armor - either because of security or efficiency.
The TSA expects the new technology will enhance both. In a statement, the agency also says the initiative "aligns with TSA's latest efforts to enhance the passenger screening experience by moving toward a more risk-based, intelligence-driven counterterrorism agency."
Although the TSA has on its website in past years reported isolated incidents of problems with identification documents presented at security lines, the agency declined to provide any specific data for this story.
1,300 types of IDs
The new machines - discreet, black and white boxes perched on the security officers' podiums at Bush Intercontinental's Terminal C - were designed by three different companies, and selected and purchased by the TSA for $3.2 million after lab testing that began last July.
"The machine was never intended to replace the (officer), it was only intended to make it easier for the (officer) to validate the document," said Ronald Weygand, director of program management for one of the companies, Massachusetts-based MorphoTrust.
Weygand noted that there are 1,300 different types of government-issued IDs, including driver's licenses and passports, in the U.S. alone.
Security and travel experts speak favorably of the initiative.
Bruce Schneiers, a security technology consultant, said the new technology may prove more valuable in speeding up the process than in ensuring the authenticity of IDs.
But Schneiers, who contends "the photo ID requirement is stupid anyway" because it has no real security benefits, said using machines to assist with verification makes sense.
"I think a machine would be much better at that than a human eye," he said. "This kind of system is going to be more reliable."
George Hobica, founder and president of online travel website Airfarewatchdog.com, called the pilot project a positive development "because it's not impossible to forge passports and licenses."
"You can go to any foreign country and for $500 you can get a very, very authentic-looking passport," Hobica said. "Anything they can do to make sure those things are real would be good."
The purpose of the machines is not to cut down on staffing - at least for now.
Each is manned by a TSA officer who uses it to scan boarding passes and IDs. Agency spokesman Greg Soule said the machine "automatically reads hundreds of security features on each of the individual IDs to authenticate" it.
Weygand, of Morpho Trust, said that includes "visible and nonvisible elements," including barcodes or any kind of chip.
If everything is a go, the machine displays a green light. If not, a red one appears.
Green light or red
"If the green light comes up, then the ID and boarding pass are not only both authentic, but they match each other," Soule said. "And then the officer looks at both boarding pass and ID to make sure it is the person that it says they are in front of them."
No red lights appeared on the machines on a recent Friday at Bush Intercontinental's Terminal C. And passengers didn't seem to notice.
"I don't mind," said Preben Thorsen, a businessman from Denmark, before going through the line. He said it is simply one more thing to heighten security.
Anything for speed
A United Airlines employee who declined to give his name expressed support when asked about the new machines, saying "anything to speed things up."
Soule, in an April interview the week after machines were unveiled at Washington Dulles International Airport, said the pilot locations were chosen for the "variety of ID we would be seeing, as well as boarding passes." (The third airport in the pilot program is in San Juan, Puerto Rico.)
"We want to test this technology on a variety of different types of IDs and different types of boarding passes," he said, "so we can collect data that would be valuable to educating us on whether this technology would be a viable solution in airports nationwide."
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