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Fix for Security Delays Might Be Close at Hand

Travel: Fingerprints digitalized on identification cards or passports can be verified in a second, decreasing the wait at checkpoints, experts say.

April 15, 2002|MICHAEL CONLON | REUTERS

The need to positively prove identity in the world left changed by Sept. 11 is driving technology designed to help people clear security checkpoints at airports and elsewhere.

One of the methods to which experts have turned also is one of the oldest--the fingerprint.

Giesecke & Devrient, a German firm, recently unveiled a "smart" identity card that will contain two of the owner's digitalized fingerprints on an embedded chip.

The company has been hired to use the technology to give the entire population of Macao--540,000 people--counterfeit-proof identity cards that will speed up processing at border points in the territory on the southeast coast of China.

The firm also says it has a contract with Egypt to provide a comprehensive identity system for each of that nation's 42 million citizens older than 16.

A Swedish company, Fingerprint Cards, recently announced that its technology, which allows fingerprint information to be incorporated in a bar code, will be used in a system being developed for airline check-in and boarding.

At the same time, documents as familiar as the passport also are undergoing changes. U.S. passports are being made with digital photos that are embedded into the paper itself, making it virtually impossible to switch one photo for another.

The British government recently announced it was considering adding a smart card to British passports. It would include such things as fingerprints and iris scans, which use the eye as a positive method of identification.

The concept of a national identity card is still controversial in some countries.

President Bush has said he does not back one for the United States, but efforts are underway to use fingerprints and other information on state driver's licenses, which could have the effect of creating a de facto national identity card.

One of the reasons fingerprints are in the fore is that, when digitalized, they can be verified very quickly, in less than a second, said Winnie Ahn, marketing specialist for SecuGen Corp., a biometric technology vendor based in Milpitas, Calif. Fingerprints also have been long known to be unique identifiers, and the technology employing them the most mature, making it relatively cheap for widespread use, she said.

Ahn said digitalization allows fine data points and spatial aspects of a print to be recognized, so that the complete print with all its curves and whorls does not have to be stored. She said fingerprints are used in more than 40% of biometric identification systems.

Not everyone can be fingerprinted. In cases where skin is worn smooth or calloused, identification can be difficult.

People in those situations will require supplemental information on identification cards or other systems, she said.

There is continuing demand among business travelers for some way to speed up processing for those who pass through airport checkpoints most frequently.

The National Business Travel Assn. said its recent survey of 200 corporate travel managers found that two of every three favored some sort of "trusted traveler" identification system that would make moving through airport security as fast as before Sept. 11.

In a similar survey in January only half of those questioned thought business travelers deserved such favored treatment.

At the same time, the survey found that 40% of those contacted were considering reducing the number of out-of-town meetings if security processes continue to slow travelers, and 56% said they might make more conference calls for the same reason.

A majority of the travel managers surveyed said, however, that a strong economy, and not improvements in security technology, is the most important factor that will push business travel back to pre-recession levels.

In the meantime, 35% said they expected it to be nine months to a year before business travel recovers to levels of two years ago; 25% said they thought it would be six to nine months.

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