TSA widens test of biometric IDs - Privacy experts worry about precedents

The biometric and personal data will be tied to various government “watch lists”

The U.S. government is spending $25 million this fiscal year to road test a universal secure identity card loaded with biometric and personal data and tied to government "watch lists." Though the program is aimed at simplifying the security checks that airport personnel and other transportation workers must go through, privacy experts are warning of unintended consequences. The card, known as the Transportation Worker Identity Credential (TWIC), will allow workers at the nation's railways, ports, mass transit agencies and airports to carry a single card to access secure areas within these facilities. Currently, many of these workers have to carry several individual cards. "Anyone who needs unescorted access to secure areas of [a transporation facility] would need a TWIC card," a TSA spokesman said. The credit-card sized device will contain fingerprints, an iris scan, palm geometry and a digital photo. It will have microchip and magnetic strip technology, along with holographic images and ultraviolet printing for added security. Think of it as a kind of universal remote of secure IDs or, if you’re more inclined to a Middle Earth meme, this is the “one card to rule them all.” The biometric and personal data will be tied to various government “watch lists” that contain the names and data of known or suspected terrorists, according to the Transportation Security Administration, which is overseeing the testing.

“The TWIC will be issued to transportation workers after thorough screening for ties to terrorism and will utilize a biometric to eliminate the use of fraudulent credentials,” said TSA chief David Stone.


Peeking inside private lives

Digital data collection may make life easier, but it can also make you easier to track.

Backing out of the driveway, your watch chimes to let you know that you've left your wallet behind. An electronic reader mounted in your garage door has reminded your laptop and cell phone and key chain to check in before you leave, but the watch has noticed that your wallet is missing. Great for the absent-minded maybe, but even the scientist perfecting that watch sees danger in the technology. The same know-how that helps you keep track of all your stuff could let cops and corporations silently keep track of you. "You've got to build in the privacy now," said Gaetano Borriello, the University of Washington computer engineer designing the attentive watch. "If you wait until the technology is out there, it's too late."

The electronics vital to Borriello's watch belong to a growing family of digital applications, ever cheaper and seemingly everywhere, that make it easy to monitor all sorts of things. You included.


Identity theft fear in digital passports

Australians are a step closer to getting new computer chip-based biometric passports, but opponents say the rush to appease the US with its new terrorist-filtering technology could threaten personal privacy. Forty groups, including the Australian Privacy Foundation, voiced concern this year about how the information on the passports might be misused, but as the Government strives to meet the deadline to keep its preferred-visa status with the US, concern has shifted to the security of the passports' computer chips. Experts say intruders may be able to "skim", or hijack, private data on the chips from a distance, and privacy groups say this could expose people to identity theft or make them a target of terrorism instead of protecting them. "This is like putting an invisible bullseye on Americans that can be seen only by the terrorists," a director of the American Civil Liberties Union, Barry Steinhardt, told The New York Times.

The new passports are intended to be the standard issue for Australians from October 26 next year, but only for new or replacement documents. About 1500 Qantas flight crew volunteers will test the electronic passports on flights to Los Angeles for three months from February.


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Top Stories - December 13th, 2004


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