By Colin Daileda
Airports worldwide are starting to replace security officials with machines to identify passengers, and those machines could soon start checking your bags.
The machines should make the check-in process safer and more efficient, allowing passengers a stress-free flying experience. But some think reliance on automated security poses a host of potential dangers.
In many ways, machines can more quickly and accurately determine who should be allowed to board a plane. If someone is trying to pass as someone else, he could be pretty convincing with a hairstyle change or colored contact lenses. But you can’t alter your irises, which is how machines in some airports across Europe, Australia and the United States identify passengers. This makes it much more difficult to pass off as your buddy.
An automated process is better-suited for a variety of other machine-readable forms of identification, said Vahid Motevalli, a professor at Tennessee Tech University and a flight security expert. For example, a person can’t read bar codes, but even if they could, they wouldn’t be as efficient as an automated process. A machine can almost always check in more people per hour than a security official, meaning security lines would move much faster.
But that may not be for the best; machines don’t offer a holistic look, Motevalli said. They aren’t programmed to notice beads of sweat on a person’s brow or someone shifting nervously from left foot to right.
“The trouble is people might…become too confident in the machines,” said Arnold Barnett, a statistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology focusing on safety issues. “They might not really remember the limitations of what they can do.”
Though Barnett believes machines can make flying safer, he is wary of other failures by similar automated systems. For example, a Metro train in Washington, D.C., slammed into the back of another train in 2009 and killed nine people, even though the system was designed to evenly space the vehicles. If those machines failed to prevent a catastrophe, why would a system designed to automate security do any better? If a system is built to detect certain explosives and someone brings in a new type, would it catch that person?
Those are some of the questions Barnett and Motevalli hope airport officials consider on the road to security automation.
“In some instances, [machines] can do things better,” Barnett said. “In some instances, [machines] might do things worse.”