Inside and Out

Biometrics is making U.S. airports more safe and secure

While airports worldwide struggle to maintain security and regulate access to restricted areas, some facilities have found a solution by implementing the most advanced and accurate identification technology available: biometrics.

Biometric technology enables highsecurity areas to identify people based on unique physical characteristics such as fingerprints, retinas and facial features.

Since biometric fingerprint technology is the most mature and widely used biometric, airports have found that fingerprint biometric access control systems provide the most accurate and secure means to verify who is allowed access to sensitive areas. Fingerprint technology is helping airports further secure critical access points and eliminate counterfeit credentials.

Other benefits include convenience, ease of use, user familiarity and a proven history of use.

However, less than 10 percent of airports worldwide have implemented fingerprint biometric access control systems, leaving substantial security vulnerabilities at critical employee access points.

“If biometric identification is not included at airport employee security checkpoints, the system is basically no better than having an access card or writing a name on a piece of paper,” said Gary Jones, senior manager of biometric security at MorphoTrak.

While biometric fingerprint technology has long been used in criminal identification and forensics by law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, Department of Homeland Security and Interpol, airports and seaports have been slower to realize the important benefits of this technology. At fault are evolving regulations, such as the TWIC program, funding and hesitance of transportation officials over which biometric solution to use, Jones said.

Yet, airports that have implemented fingerprint biometric identification systems for employee access control have become some of the safest and more secure airports in the world. The Seattle-Tacoma, Wash., International Airport, the Charles de Gaulle and Orly International airports in Paris, and McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas currently have some of the largest biometric access control systems in the world. By using fingerprint access technology, these facilities have tightened security at critical airport junctures through unparalleled identification accuracy.

The overall benefits of these security systems include enhanced access security, reliability of employee identification, reduction in data redundancy and errors and assured compliance with Transportation Security Administration policies.

At Land and at Sea
The Seattle-Tacoma International airport and Port of Seattle currently have the largest and longest-running fingerprint biometric access system in the United States. The implementation of the system in 2004 was due primarily to the events of 9/11 and the timing of airport renovations.

In 2001, Seattle airport and seaport officials had planned to construct and implement a new employee access control system at the SeaTac International airport, as part of a $587-million airport terminal expansion.

The plan included standard identification card technology to access critical areas of the airport.

But after 9/11, airport officials decided a more reliable and secure identification technology was needed.

They wanted a solution that increased security at access points, provided real-time control of airport ID card validity and access rights, and could be leveraged with the infrastructure of the old security systems.

SeaTac officials deemed biometric fingerprint technology as the best solution for their security needs.

Completed in 2004, the SeaTac airport replaced its entire access control system, which secures all facilities and perimeter gates, while using the previous physical infrastructure. The system consists of nearly 1,000 biometric fingerprint terminals, including more than 100 outdoor waterproof fingerprint readers, designed to withstand the harsh weather conditions on the airport ramps.

When an employee enters an airport access point, they must use a contactless smart card, which contains key information required for employee authentication.

The high-volume doors average 750 entry transactions per day and 32 transactions per hour. On busy days, these doors can process more than 1,000 transactions.

Currently, more than 40,000 SeaTac Airport employees are registered in the system. Enrollment involves scanning and coding finger images with the MorphoTrak software. The encrypted finger templates, or maps, are then written to the smart chip on the employee’s identification card and entered into a central database that uses MorphoAccess software to sort, identify and allow entry in a matter of seconds.

A Multi-site System
The Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris is the second busiest airport in Europe, and the sixth busiest in the world in terms of travellers, with more than 57 million passengers in 2009. To ensure airport security at the Charles de Gaulle and Paris Orly airports, officials chose a fingerprint identification system, which is the largest and longest-running airport biometric identification system in Europe.

The implementation of a fingerprint identification system at these airports was largely the result of flaws exposed in the employee identification system after 9/11. In one instance, a French television program exposed security vulnerabilities at the Charles de Gaulle airport by creating a counterfeit ID card and entering a restricted airport area. The incident -- and a heightened awareness of airport security -- made it clear to French airport officials the traditional ID card system was not sufficient.

After a study conducted by the Paris airports, it was determind that biometric fingerprint technology was the best solution to maintain airport security and access control.

The BIOCONTROL system became operational in June 2004, and it is now used more than 30,000 times a day. The most secure biometric components were implemented, including fake finger detection, data encryption and contactless Desfire smart cards.

One hundred fixed and 15 Wi-Fi mobile security checkpoints are interconnected to servers at Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports.

At each airport security checkpoint, an employee is required to scan a personal ID card, as well as present his or her finger to a biometric sensor. The finger template on the card and the live finger image are compared, and the result is referenced against a central database.

If the live finger image matches the finger template on the card, the monitor displays a real-time photo of the employee and grants passage. The matching process is performed in about one second.

More than 90,000 employees have been enrolled through 20 airport enrollment stations, with the average enrollment time for a staff member taking less than three minutes. Enrollment began in April 2004 and was completed a few months later with up to 2,000 staff members successfully enrolled each day.

Less than 0.1 percent of staff members were unable to enroll, due to the poor quality of their fingerprints.

The employees’ biometric credentials are written to a contactless encrypted RFID tag and affixed to the back of the professional French civil aviation credentials. Enrollment stations at the airport are used to enroll new staff members and renew expired badges.

ADP officials have deemed the BIOCONTROL solution a success, since it drastically improves airport security, increases access control reliability and decreases staff access time for two of the busiest airports in Europe.

A Proactive Approach
McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas serves more than 40 million passengers each year, making it the fifth busiest airport in the United States and the 10th-busiest in the world. McCarran has been known for its progressive and proactive approach to security. In fact, it was one of the first airports in the United States to install an electronic access system, in 1990.

In 2009, a comprehensive biometric employee access control and badging system was installed. The solution includes more than 300 fingerprint readers that regulate employee entry to numerous airport areas. To enroll, each employee is required to submit fingerprint identification to the DHS transportation security clearinghouse for a background check. Once the background check is cleared, the fingerprint data is stored and managed by a MorphoTrak fingerprint data router.

Employees are then issued identification badges that contain personal biometric templates for controlling access throughout the airport.

Benefits of this system include enhanced access security, reliability of employee identification, and reduction in data redundancy and errors, as well as improved compliance with TSA security policy.

While the implementation of biometric fingerprint technology for employee access control has enabled the SeaTac, McCarran, Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports to achieve accurate employee identification, the fact remains that most airports are not this secure. The majority of airports still maintain outdated employee identification systems and use traditional access cards, which can present serious vulnerabilities.

“Biometric identification ensures that the holder of a credential is the true owner of that credential,” Jones said. “It establishes a chain of trust. If you bind a biometric to a person’s name and employment information, you know it is the individual that you’ve vetted, who is not going to do harm and will protect the airport areas that need protection.”

The use of biometric fingerprint technology produces near error-free matches of employees and eliminates the potential for counterfeit identification cards and PINs at airports. Another advantage of biometric fingerprint technology is that airports can incorporate the technology into their existing security systems.

“A lot of security officers are worried about having to throw existing solutions out and start from scratch,” Jones said. “Biometrics can be integrated into traditional systems, such as access control using traditional card readers. It’s not always a case of investing in new infrastructure. Often the core of the existing system can be a good platform for adding a biometric security layer.”

Due to an absence of government legislation, a subsequent lack of grant funding and the misconception that biometric technology is relatively new, many airports have not implemented it for access control. Airports typically either use other costly, time-consuming measures for access control or leave critical areas vulnerable to fraud and possible illegal entry.

The right biometric technology and hardware offer a secure alternative that not only integrates into current airport security systems, but also adapts to any future regulations. Investing in smart hardware that is able to evolve with changing specifications and government requirements can be an invaluable security tool as more airports invest in security upgrades to ensure the safety of the thousands of passengers and employees moving through them every day.


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