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Fingerprint plan stalls on the runway.

Fingerprint plan stalls on the runway

It took ten years to build, 60,000 people and an investment of £4.3 billion. It came into operation on budget and on schedule. So why was the opening of the new Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow airport not greeted with universal acclaim? Because plans were unveiled – and then retracted less than 24 hours before the first flights began using the terminal – to fingerprint all passengers travelling through it.

BAA, the airport operator, had hoped compulsorily to take four fingerprints and a photograph of passengers for international and domestic flights on their arrival at the terminal and then check these again at the departure gate. This would mean that, for example, 16 fingerprints would have been required from a family of four travelling from London to Manchester.

International and domestic passengers mix at the new terminal, and the move was designed to prevent illegal immigrants from flying in, claiming to be in transit to another country (and thus avoiding passport control at Terminal 5) then swapping boarding passes with accomplices booked on a domestic flight whose passengers would not be subject to a border check at their destination.

In an attempt to counter civil-liberty concerns, BAA had issued a statement saying that all fingerprints and photographs of passengers would be destroyed after 24 hours and not passed to the police or anyone else.

But the assurances failed to impress the Information Commissioner’s office. It expressed concern that the move was another step to a surveillance society and warned the airport operator that it might breach data-protection laws. The Information Commissioner asked: ‘Why does BAA need fingerprints, and why four? Why are other airports able to operate with just photographs, and is this a proportionate response?’ In the light of such criticisms, BAA backed down.

There were, in any event, doubts among some IT specialists about whether the technology would have worked. The system would have had to match the two sets of fingerprints in ‘real time’ – the time it takes passengers to walk from check-in to the departure gate – and this is notoriously difficult. Drawing on experiences of real-time reporting systems, business-activity monitoring and real-time data mining, Jennings (Computer Weekly, 8 Jan 2008) explains that many real-time systems fail, and that giving employees instant access to data can slow operations.

Moreover, as de Jongh (Managing Information, Jan/Feb 2008) points out (though not directly in relation to BAA), too many organizations fail to think beyond the direct threats posed by hackers and towards the wider security risks facing computer networks. While many organizations have complex network-security systems and firewalls in place, some overlook the wider risks that organizations can face from, for example, theft of data by using mobile and easily concealed devices.

Richard Morrison, a columnist for The Times, who probably travels through Heathrow Airport more than most, wrote a cogent article attacking the fingerprint proposals. He asked: ‘Are you happy to trust the people who run the airline industry with your fingerprints? As thousands of angry passengers will attest, you can’t even trust them with your suitcase!’