Why Are We Still Waiting for Biometric Authorization to Fly?


By Robert McGarvey

The other day I realized I can sign into checking accounts at two different credit unions with a fingerprint.  I can also buy just about anything with Apple Pay on an iPhone and a fingerprint.

So why can’t I get on a plane and fly to anyplace based upon a biometric measure?

If you are enrolled in TSA Pre, the government already has your fingerprints on file.  That data is there.

Clear, meantime, has rolled out entry – via a fingerprint or eye print – at a number of airports.  That’s a private service that the company says will get you through security in five minutes – and I like the idea of not fumbling for a driver’s license. So I may enroll.

But I may not just because I am cranky that the government and airlines are both dragging feet about deploying biometrics which, to my eyes, are potentially a lot more secure than photo IDs such as driver’s licenses and passports.

So why aren’t biometrics in greater use in US airports?

That’s hard to answer.  

There are tiny signs of progress. Right now, JetBlue is experimenting with facial scans for boarding.

Homeland Security is saying it wants to use facial scans of all passengers who hold visas on international flights.  

But there is no big push to speed up widespread biometrics adoption at airports, definitely not for domestic flights.

Is it because the technology isn’t there yet?

Nope. Financial services prove that biometrics are reliable. Big banks wouldn’t use them if they weren’t. Many, many organizations – including government agencies – also use biometrics for entry into certain buildings.  

Security – of our bank accounts and many companies and government agencies – rests on biometrics already.

The CIA – ironically perhaps – has been grumbling that increased use of biometrics , especially in foreign airports, may lead to blowing the covers of its spies.

This is technology that works – except when it’s not deployed.

Boil it down and there are two issues holding up adoption at US airports. For one there are grumbles about privacy lost – but personally if I had any privacy I lost it over the past 15 years.  Believing in privacy is as sensible as believing in the tooth fairy.

Reason two is that a kind of stinginess still prevails in airport security. The federal government does not want to pay for stepped up airport biometrics and neither, so far, do the airlines.

That might paint a pessimistic picture. But I am increasingly optimistic.

My hunch is that biometrics will come to airports sooner than many think, because they work and also because we the passengers will begin to demand them. Biometrics work and, in our everyday lives, we see that.  We trust them, we use them.

And the technology just seems to keep getting better.

Which should airports deploy?

I talked with the president of a large biometrics company and asked him a simple question: which biometric did he see gaining supremacy in the US?

Right now, in banking, there are many competing biometrics: fingerprints, face scans (selfies), voice prints, iris scans, retinal scans are all scrapping for attention.

Which will reign supreme?

He told me that was no longer the question. He claimed that more institutions are now offering multiple biometrics so individuals can choose the one that best suits them in the moment.  A case in point is the big bank USAA which now lets its customers choose among fingerprint, voice, or face.

The reality is that – probably – many of us will use all three, just at different times.  You might like a selfie, except when you are driving, for instance, in which moments voice might be the way to go.

At airports, to, it easy to see several biometrics put into place – maybe selfies without our active participation, possibly voice and/or fingerprint with our participation.

If the result is a surer identification of me – and I believe it would be – I am all in.

What about the people who are upset about privacy lost?  I hear that complaint but, honestly, since 9/11 there has been a steady erosion in our privacy. I do not applaud that but I acknowledge it and I am not going to pretend we have something we no longer do.

And remember the goal here is both more secure and faster movement at airports.

Biometrics will get us there.


2 thoughts on “Why Are We Still Waiting for Biometric Authorization to Fly?”

  1. In Israel, citizens are issued Biometric passports. You can breeze through passport control . Something tells me the Israel’s know a thing or two about security.

  2. Hi Robert.

    Great post! I agree with much of what you are saying. For good or bad, I also agree that the privacy argument is slowly losing steam. Our expectations of anonymity in a connected world are slim and decreasing each day.

    While there are many benefits of biometric technology, they are not the panacea for security. They should never be the sole determinant of identity, but rather one tool in a contextual analysis of the situation in which they are used. Even with their advances, problems still remain from a technical and operational standpoint for each biometric modality. As long as we continue to implement systems that use them as only one component within an overall secure solution, we should be ok. 🙂


    – Jeff

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