SFO again pioneers security tech

Ever since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has consistently called upon San Francisco International Airport to join the front line of border protection by testing new security equipment and procedures. From screener checkpoints to centralized baggage scanning, improvements first tested successfully at SFO have now become part of standard U.S. airport anti-terrorist defenses.

The latest call on SFO to test-pilot enhanced identity confirmation methods was announced Tuesday. The Bay Area’s premier airport will be the only West Coast destination among 10 major air hubs — including JFK in New York and Chicago’s O’Hare — to debut advanced 10-fingerprint scanners this year.

The US-VISIT program is phasing in required 10-fingerprint scans for foreign visitors arriving from nations that need visas or from countries in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program. Currently such visitors must provide two fingerprints and a facial photograph when entering the United States. These two-fingerprint scans have been carried out at SFO for nearly two years with no problems.

By now, the two-fingerprint U.S. arrival system is being used at 115 airports, 15 seaports and 154 land border checks. About 100 million fingerprints have been taken so far, and more than 34,000 people were denied entry after their fingerprints were checked against U.S. security watch lists. The FBI and CIA also have access to airport fingerprint data.

In some ways, succeeding with the new 10-fingerprint scan test will be SFO’s greatest security challenge yet. Many European Union officials have been highly dubious about the increasingly stringent U.S. travel security demands. The US-VISIT technical operations director went to European Union headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, on Monday with reassurances that fingerprint scans would be collected under strict U.S. privacy protection rules.

If the Homeland Security Department does not accomplish a smooth and diplomatic phase-in of 10-fingerprint scanning at SFO, the Open Skies Agreement could be slower at bringing its benefits to the airport. Open Skies is a recently negotiated treaty between the U.S. and European Union, making it easier for European and American airlines to fly to more cities on either side of the Atlantic.

This agreement has already been instrumental in attracting Virgin America and Irish airline Aer Lingus to SFO. Qatar Airways has the airport on its short list for choice American destinations, and SFO executives are in active negotiations with other European carriers.

We are betting that SFO will be successful at helping establish 10-fingerprint scanning and that when the Homeland Security Department gets ready to try out facial and eye retina scans, SFO will again be one of the first airports called upon to test the newbiometric devices and prove them as a viable element of American anti-terrorist defenses.

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