Although the airborne cars promised in so many science fiction movies and books have yet to reach fruition, a new high-tech security system being tested at Kennedy International Airport seems to be exactly the future Hollywood envisioned.
Airport officials last week unveiled an iris scanning system that records the inside of an employee’s eye to create a digitized file that will be used as identification to receive access into restricted locations at JFK.
Kennedy becomes the first American airport to implement the iris scanning technology into its security system. The Charlotte/Douglas International Airport in Charlotte, North Carolina used a similar technology for about a year, but suspended it in 2001.
The iris scanning application has been installed at Terminal 4, the $1.4 billion international arrival facility that opened last year. The terminal is the only one in the United States that is privately owned, and not under the operation of an airline.
The pilot program is being operated on a volunteer basis, and so far, 300 of the 1,500 employees at Terminal 4 have enrolled. The equipment became operational in late September.
A press conference was held last Thursday morning to unveil and demonstrate the new equipment. The technology was developed by the Dutch biometrics company, Dartagnan.
“We did a lot of research into different equipment and we believe this is the most secure method,” said John DeFelice, security director for the terminal. “Before, someone could just give another person their card and identification number (to access secure areas). With the iris scan, that’s impossible.”
Employees swipe their Port Authority identification cards and enter their pin card to open a door that lets them into a clear booth. Once they are inside, an iris scan is done, and if it matches, the door on the other side of the booth opens and they are allowed into the secure area.
The iris scan takes about 10 to 15 seconds, and is able to read through contact lenses and glasses, but not sunglasses. If the scanner does not match the employee’s eye, an alarm will sound and security is dispatched.
Each iris scanner costs approximately $2,000, and the security doors on the booth cost $15,000 each. The equipment being used in Terminal 4 is installed in the customs area leading to the tarmac.
The iris scan technology is considered to have the lowest failure rate in biometrics, which is the method of identifying people using physical characteristics. The iris has more than 260 independent markers used for identification, compared to the 30 to 40 that can be found in a fingerprint.
There are no immediate plans right now for Kennedy to begin using the security system on passengers, a decision that would need approval from the federal government.
However, there was talk of that becoming a possibility sometime down the road if the Transportation Security Administration—the federal agency that is monitoring the current test—is pleased with the results, and the need exists for tighter security measures.
The Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam has used iris scanning on frequent flying passengers for over a year.
John Scanlon, director of the New York State Office of Public Security, dismissed the notion using the test on employees indicates a fear of a security breach among airport workers.
“A failure to prepare is to prepare for failure,” he said, paraphrasing Benjamin Franklin. “This is not in response to a problem, it’s being pro-active.”
In a time of tightened security since the September 11th attacks, and with the ongoing debate over whether the government is infringing on civil liberties, Scanlon also dismissed the new system as being an Orwellian watchdog over airport employees.
“The pilot project is for employees because it’s easier to monitor and to safeguard,” he said. “Everyone who goes into the security area already has to get fingerprinted anyway, so this is no more than what they already have to do.”
Alain Maca, president of Terminal 4 for Kennedy Airport, is not concerned that 1,200 of the employees at the terminal have chosen not to enroll in the program, and expects more to register as the test continues.
“Not everybody goes into those (secure) areas, so they would have no reason to enroll,” he said. “A lot of (employees) did not get the memo. But every week we have more and more people enroll.”
Elizabeth Coletta, who is the assistant to the station manager for Swiss Air at Terminal 4, is happy with the new security measures.
“I think it’s more of a secure system,” she said. “And I don’t think anyone fears their biometric information will be used for anything else.”