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Airport security and biometrics: From bureaucratic processes to traveller segmentation

19 Apr 2012


Airports are amongst the most iconic places of modernization. They constitute global hubs connecting travellers promoting this way the core idea of our times; mobility. As such they are also sites where security is a core concern, especially after 09/11.

The trade-off between security and mobility is troubling all governments hosting international airports on their territory. Their obligation is to allow travellers to cross airports fast and, if possible seamlessly, while protecting their citizens from potential threats such as terrorism, crime or illegal immigration. The outcome of these efforts is a series of controls that have turned airport security into a huge bureaucratic organisation focused on rules and procedures. Passengers’ experience at the airport is deteriorating since security measures are becoming more invasive and come to threaten basic freedoms in the name of security.

Recently, in the UK and the US there are several voices calling for a new approach to airport security that will promote security against threats without sacrificing health and safety concerns. The controversial trial of the new control system at UK borders was an attempt to shift a predominantly bureaucratic process based on a series of checks to a more flexible system based on risk management. The same issues are raised by Kip Hawley, former Head of Transportation Security Administration, USA in a recent article in Wall Street Journal[1]. He admits that security checks have a historic rationale behind them, as new measures are added after major disasters in airport security. However, he explains this is not an efficient strategy since it focuses on reaction instead of prevention which can only be achieved in the form of risk management.

Where do biometrics enter these discussions? They are usually presented as the main solution to both efficiency and security concerns in airports. Their uniqueness addresses problems of passenger identification. Passports and visas are based on the use of biometric data (i.e. biometric images and fingerprints). Trusted travellers programmes are based on the extensive use of biometric identification technologies primarily iris but also fingerprint scanning. This way, they allow for passengers to enjoy a better experience at airports while they support new approaches for security based on risk management instead of detailed and time-consuming controls.

However, the forthcoming expansion of their use raises concerns on the new forms of citizenship related both to globalization/mobility and the scientification of identification through biometrics. Biometrics and risk management techniques are based on the segmentation and categorisation of travellers. Not all travellers are equal, not only in the quality of service they receive during the flight, but on the controls they are put through as they enter and leave the airport. What was before segmentation by airliners has now become categorisation by the state towards citizens and foreigners alike. This is an important redefinition of travellers as a subject to be governed not only by their states of origin but by the hosting states too. Nonetheless, security controls are so burdensome and unpleasant for travellers, while airports are seen as primarily transitory places, that these issues usually go unnoticed leaving the politics of airport security out of the realm of civil concerns.


[1] Howley, K. (2012). Why airport security is broken – and how to fix it. Retrieved from Wall Street Journal on 17/04/2012. Available at: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303815404577335783535660546.html
 
By Elpida Prasopoulou