Coming to an Airport Near You: Iris Scanners

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Imagine a world where walking through airport security consists of basically just that: walking. New technology unveiled today at the annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) could cut the time it takes to clear security checks at airports from the current 35-minute average down to seconds and dramatically improve security.

Kind of like the failed "puffer" bomb sniffer, the "Checkpoint of the Future" looks like an illuminated car wash with three portals. An iris scan matches you to a chip in your passport or identification card and also assigns a security-risk level that determines which of the three portals you'll enter--"known traveller," normal security, or enhanced security. Depending on your security level, a series of x-rays would then analyze your body and your luggage contents while you walk through a long tunnel. Travelers in the high-risk tunnel would be subject to a more aggressive, full-body scan that checks for for explosives and liquids. 

It's a bit Orwellian, but airport security officials nevertheless seem excited. U.S. Transportation Security Administration chief John Pistole attended the unveiling and announced plans to implement the new fast-track system within the next five years. "It's something that's long overdue," Pistole said at the conference. "We're not at the checkpoint of the future yet but we're working toward that. I think eventually we will see something similar." The TSA could use an upgrade as everybody clearly hates the invasive body scanners introduced last year. They hate them passionately.

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IATA Director General Giovanni brought human rights into the conversation. "Passengers should be able to get from curb to boarding gate with dignity,"  Bisignani told the Associated Press. "That means without stopping, stripping or unpacking, and certainly not groping."

This is far from the first time iris scans have been considered in the airport screening process. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security launched a pilot program that used iris scans at the Border Patrol station in McAllen, Texas. Billed as a faster alternative to fingerprinting, the iris scanner checked the immigration status of detainees and stored the information in a database. The American Civil Liberties Union objected to the federal government dipping into this territory. "If you can identify any individual at a distance and without their knowledge, you literally allow the physical tracking of a person anywhere there's a camera and access to the Internet," ACLU lawyer Christopher Calabrese told USA Today

There was also the TSA's fated Registered Traveller program running from 2006 to 2008 and a privately operated service that would essentially allow passengers to buy their way through security. With a $179 annual membership fee, passengers would clear that first ID check with an eye scan and proceed ahead of the line to the regular security procedure.

A pilot program using the new "Checkpoints of the Future" is expected to be introduced within a year. The programs details will reveal exactly how the TSA plans to navigate in the prickly in-between where privacy and security clash. The difference between a private company conducting iris scans and the government doing so will also bring a new Orwellian element to the debate. In the meantime, here's the Minority Report clip you knew was coming:

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.