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US Gov Hints at Major Passenger Tracking System

The US Transportation Security Administration has issued a public request for information to learn about methods and technologies that could be used to build a comprehensive airline passenger- and luggage-tracking system based on RFID, biometrics, smart cards, and other technologies.
Apr 25, 2007This article was originally published by RFID Update.

April 25, 2007—The Transportation Security Administration has issued a public request for information (RFI) about methods and technologies that could be used to build a comprehensive airline passenger- and luggage-tracking system, reports RFID Law Blog. A division of the US Department of Homeland Security, the TSA indicated in the RFI that eligible technologies include RFID, biometrics, smart cards, video surveillance, document scanners, and portals and kiosks, among others.

The goal of the system would be to allow the track and trace of each passenger and his or her luggage at every point along a journey, from reservation to the passenger's exit at the destination airport. Not only would the system track passengers and their luggage independently, it would also offer the ability to identify travelers and associate them with the location of their checked and carry-on luggage in real time.

"A key aspect of the enhanced security envisioned for this future system is the ability to continuously ensure positive identification of every passenger as they traverse the aviation system... In addition, checked and carry-on baggage must be continuously associated with those passengers and tracked as it moves through the various stages of the travel process," reads the RFI. "To realize this vision, an integrated suite of systems that can support credential verification, authentication of varying forms of identification, and positive passenger identification is required."

It is important to note that this RFI represents only the earliest phase of such a system. Requests for information are typically issued when the government does not have enough knowledge or expertise internally about a particular topic and therefore turns to private industry for education. Indeed, the opening line of the RFI characterizes the effort as "market research." Still, the mere existence of the RFI does indicate the extent to which the Department of Homeland Security has conceptualized a 100% surveilled air travel infrastructure in the US.

Notable too is just how comprehensive the envisioned system is. While luggage tracking has long been considered an application ripe for improvement by technologies such as RFID, the goal was to track bags only insofar as loss and misdirection was prevented (recall that the airline industry loses billions every year to lost or misdirected luggage). Or consider the recently announced effort at the UK's Manchester Airport to track passengers within the airport, from check-in to boarding (see UK's Manchester Airport to Track Travelers with RFID). The stated purpose of that effort is to improve the efficiency of the airport's security screening process. In both cases, the deployment of technology is relatively limited in scope. By comparison, the TSA's system would have to be far more pervasive in order to offer the level of desired real-time visibility.

It will be interesting to see if the effort gets off the ground, and of course how the general public reacts to such unprecedented levels of surveillance.
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