Thursday, December 07, 2006

Flights of fancy

I take a keen interest in aviation news, and there are a couple of stories on the Beeb that caught my eye.

The first gives a glimpse of the technologically safe future of flying that we can expect soon:

Passengers at Heathrow airport are being invited to take part in a trial of high-tech biometric scanning equipment, which aims to make the travelling process easier by getting people through identity checks faster than ever before.
This sounds like a good idea, no? Here's how it works:
The biometric system, called miSense, comes in three stages. The first sees the passenger use a self-service kiosk to register their passport and a fingertip before checking in using the same machine.

Then, when they approach the departure lounge, they simply press the same digit on a panel at the gate and also feed their boarding pass in. Now they are able to browse the duty free.

Gimme, gimme, gimme...

Finally, when they are about to board the aircraft, they offer their finger, boarding card and passport, confirming they are the person who is supposed to fly.

So, despite having submitted your biometric details, you still have to show your passport to get on the plane. Yeees, it must save a lot of time. Nooo, it's certainly not a waste of money. But perhaps I'm too cynical. The story continues:
In addition there is miSenseplus, whereby a person's 13 biometric measurements are taken - ten fingerprints, two irises, their face - and then submitted onto a card. If you haven't all of these then you offer what you can.
What ever happened to the "Distinguishing Features" section on passports? Didn't spy and adventure stories revolve around them in days of yore? Surely the restoration of that to the passport would be adequate for keeping track of people with fingers or an eye missing who might have terrorist links?

Are there any weaknesses in the system?

When asked about the possibility of the system being fooled, by wearing contact lenses with fake iris impressions for example, the spokesman smiles.

"You can never say you can develop a system that's 100% secure. No-one would ever claim that."

So, it isn't entirely foolproof. Why bother, then?

"If someone presents a plastic finger with a fake fingerprint, for example, the machine can detect that."

I'm sure terrorists around the world will be abandoning their "let's use a plastic finger" ideas even now. It's like the US Immigration Service's "Are you a terrorist?" question: a surefire way to stop plotters in their tracks.

The whole unveiling was manned by Liam Byrne, a government stooge spokesman, who came out with a much anticipated line:
"If you've got nothing to hide then why are you worried about ID cards?"
Well, Mr Byrne, like most people, I've got lots of things to hide, which is why I think this illiberal data-gathering stinks.


And talking of planes and people trying to hide things that stink, the second BBC story:
An American Airlines plane made an emergency landing in Nashville after passengers reported the smell of sulphur from burning matches.

The matches were found on the seat of a woman who had attempted to conceal the odour of flatulence with the matches, Nashville airport authorities said.

Nashville? Home of country music? What would Johnny Cash have said? Altogether now:
"And it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire, the ring of fire."

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