FAA Serious about Smart Cards

With the administration and both houses of Congress potentially signing off on air-travel smart cards, hopes are high in the industry that soon travelers will be signing up for the cards for use during all phases of the trip, from buying the ticket to che

Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Jane Garvey on Thursday said that she and her staff would meet that day with the smart card industry to talk about implementing the technology in airports and airlines around the country.

"We absolutely are considering it," she said at the U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting in Washington, D.C. "I would hope we could move quickly on it."

Smart cards carry an onboard chip that can store extensive biometric data. The cards could use, for example, fingerprints or iris scans to ensure that the person using the card is the person identified on the card.

Airport-security bills in both houses of Congress contain language endorsing air-travel smart cards. The Senate passed its bill last week. The House of Representatives has spent several weeks haggling over whether baggage security personnel should be federal employees, and the body has not managed yet to pass a bill. The issue of airport smart cards has not been controversial.

With the administration and both houses of Congress potentially signing off on air-travel smart cards, hopes are high in the industry that soon travelers will be signing up for the cards for use during all phases of the trip, from buying the ticket to checking bags to boarding the plane.

Smart cards are "the best tool for protecting peoples private information and filling a security gap," said Donna Farmer, president and chief executive officer of the Smartcard Alliance, an industry trade group based in New York City. "But its key that good privacy policies are put in place."

To date, all serious air-travel smart card ideas have revolved around a voluntary card: Get the biometrically-authenticated card, the argument goes, and you can skip the long lines scattered throughout the airport, zip through the airport scanners, and head straight to your gate. Failure to use a smart card simply means the traveler must wait in more, and longer, lines.

Using smart cards within individual airports for this purpose is not a technological challenge. The tough part, said Michael Carr, director of North American government and healthcare marketing for the French company SchlumbergerSema – the largest manufacturer of smart cards and cards with magnetic stripes in the world – will be building a seamless, nationwide system.

"The airline industry is as fragmented as healthcare, and where it becomes challenging is to implement specific, standardized information technology throughout," he said. "I think it will take time and resources to be able to make airports consistent through the country … How are you going to create interoperability within and between airports?"

Carr said he knew that people within the smart card industry, including his own company, have spoken with FAA staffers about the technology recently "as a means of securing various locations within airports, and perhaps on the airlines themselves." He said federal authorities should be involved in the standard-setting process, which would involve 600 airports and their hundreds of thousands of employees, potentially all airlines, and the smart card industry.

Now, he said, "companies like ours are developing applications that would be useful in the context of airport security. You cant just pull it off the shelf. You have different idiosyncrasies at the airports."

He predicted it would take between 24 months and 36 months for smart cards to start being used widely in airports.

But Rob Atkinson, director of the Progressive Policy Institutes Technology and New Economy Project, thought it would take as little as six months for smart cards to be standard within airports. The Progressive Policy Institute is a centrist Democrat-aligned think tank. Shortly after the September 11 attacks, Atkinson authored a paper supporting air-travel smart cards that received attention on Capitol Hill.

Smart cards, he said, "will help tighten up air-travel security, both on the personnel and the passenger side. Also, its going to be hard for airline travel to go back to its old numbers if they persist in the type of security procedures they have today, because lines are just too long … You could really speed up the process. Fortuitously, there is a third, giant benefit: If the FAA does this right, within a year well have potentially 20 million and 40 million biometrically authenticated smart cards in the United States, that can be used by individuals when they surf the web, using their smart cards for e-commerce. Youll get smart card developers to roll them out in all kinds of ways, so youll have smart card commerce, so I think this could be really powerful."

He added: "This is very important technology, both for the security side of the equation and also the economic growth side."

Atkinson said the FAA involvement in setting standards would be vital.

James Plummer, a policy analyst with Consumer Alert, a conservative watchdog organization, fears the scenario Atkinson paints of air-travel smart cards morphing into de fact national identification cards.

"I agree with his implications (of using air-travel smart cards), but I certainly dont champion such a notion," he said. "It seems to me thats exactly what we dont want, all of these smart cards with information about people."

Of airline smart cards, he said "requiring all of these internal controls is dodging the responsibilities of law enforcement, which is supposed to keep out these people."

Ultimately, he said, smart cards would do nothing to stop terrorists from committing acts of mass violence.

"In the meantime," he said, "regular citizens data will be put in more and more databases, which will be open to private investigators, hackers, governments, credit agencies, and other organizations. Thats the main problem."