TSA eyes RFID to track airline passengers

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TSA eyes RFID to track airline passengers

The US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is examining the use of radio frequency identification tagged airline boarding passes that could allow passenger tracking within airports, a proposal some privacy advocates called a potentially "outrageous" violation of civil liberties. 

Anthony Cerino, communications security technology lead at the TSA, said the agency believed the use of boarding passes with radio frequency identification (RFID) chips could speed up the movement of passengers who sign on to the agency's "registered traveller" programme. This would permit them to pass through a secure "special lane" during the boarding process. 

Under the registered traveller programme, frequent fliers would provide the TSA with detailed personal information that would be correlated by a background check.

Privacy advocates said they believed the RFID boarding pass would then serve as an automatic link to the registered traveller database. Details about how the system might work have not been released by the TSA. 

Speaking at the RFID Journal Executive Conference this week Cerino said widespread use of RFID boarding passes could enhance airport security by allowing security personnel to track all passengers in an airport. The RFID boarding passes would let security personnel "know people's whereabouts", Cerino said. 

Cerino did not say when or if the TSA would push for introduction of the RFID boarding passes or how such a project - likely to require a massive, networked infrastructure - would be funded. 

The TSA has already started to work on deploying RFID boarding passes in Africa under the Federal Aviation Administration's Safe Skies for Africa Initiative, Cerino said. He did not say which countries would use the boarding passes or when the project would start. The initiative identifies Angola, Cameroon, Cape Verde, the Ivory Coast, Kenya, Mali, Namibia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe as member countries. 

Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering, a privacy group which has fought the use of RFID tags by retailers and other organisations, called the idea a potentially "shocking and outrageous" violation of civil liberties. 

She called the use of RFID to track people a "nightmare scenario" which uses technology to invade privacy. "Are they going to track how long I spend in the ladies' room?" Albrecht asked. She added that the TSA's idea is the reason "why people are so upset about the technology". 

Beth Givens, executive director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, said she viewed the use of RFID boarding passes as a "questionable proposal", and wondered whether they would work because of the "jumble of data" resulting from efforts to track thousands of passes and passengers in a typical airport.

Agam Shah writes for Computerworld (US online)

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