Updated August 02, 2012
Are the airlines getting a free ride on the taxpayers' dime thanks to the Transportation Safety Administration's (TSA) new high-tech and high dollar system to detect fake boarding passes?
In these days of print-at-home boarding passes and programs like Photoshop, the number of people illegally boarding planes and flying for free by using fake boarding passes and IDs has increased significantly. To the airlines, this is fraud that results in lost income. To honest, paying passengers, it's an insult that results in higher ticket prices. To the TSA, it's a gaping hole is security that could result in another terrorist attack.
To the rescue comes the TSA's high-tech and high-cost CAT/BPSS -- Credential Authentication Technology and Boarding Pass Scanning System - now being tested at George Bush Intercontinental in Houston, Luis Muñoz Marín International in San Juan, and Washington, D.C. Dulles International at an initial combined cost of $3.2 million.
In testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security, Stephen M. Lord, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office, reported that the estimated 20-year life cycle cost of the CAT/BPSS system is approximately $130 million based on a nationwide deployment of 4,000 units.
What CAT/BPSS Does
Costing $100,000 each, and with multiple systems to eventually be installed by the TSA at all U.S. airports serving commercial flights, the CAT/BPSS system automatically compares the passenger's ID to an extensive set of security features. Most modern forms of state-issued identification include encoded data, such as barcodes, holograms, magnetic stripes, embedded electrical circuits, and computer-readable text.
CAT/BPPS also validates the authenticity of the passenger's boarding pass at the first TSA security checkpoint using bar code readers and encryption techniques. The system is compatible with any barcode and can be used with paper boarding passes printed on a home computer, boarding passes printed by the airlines, or a paperless boarding passes that are sent to passengers' mobile devices.
The system temporarily captures and displays the photograph from the passenger's ID for viewing only by TSA agents to help them compare the photo to the person carrying the ID.
Finally, CAT/BPPS compares the encoded data on the passenger's ID to data on the boarding pass. If they match, they fly.
Encountering the CAT/BPSS System
According to the TSA, actually using the CAT/BPSS system will work like this: At the first TSA checkpoint, passengers will hand their ID to the TSA Travel Document Checker (TDC). The TDC will scan the passenger's ID, while the passenger scans his or her boarding pass using a built-in scanner. TSA says that testing has shown the CAT/BPSS process takes no longer than the current process in which the TDC visually compares the passenger's ID to the boarding pass.
In response to concerns about the CAT/BPSS system and personal privacy, the TSA assures that the CAT/BPSS system automatically and permanently deletes all information it has gathered from the ID and the boarding pass. TSA further states that the picture on the passenger's ID can be viewed only by TSA agents.
Also See: TSA Defends Boarding Gate Drink Checks
In announcing the development of the CAT/BPSS system, TSA administrator John S. Pistole stated in a press release, "This technology will help facilitate risk-based security, while making the process more effective and efficient."
What the Critics Say
Critics of the CAT/BPSS argue that if the TSA is effective at its primary job - screening for Weapons, Incendiaries, and Explosives - another computer system dedicated only to verifying passenger identity is an unnecessary waste of money. After all, they point out, once passengers have passed the TSA scanning checkpoints, they are allowed to board planes without showing their IDs.
Also See: Congressman Takes On Rogue TSA Airport Screeners
When the LA Times on June 30, 2011, reported the story of a Nigerian airline stowaway who succeeded in flying from New York to Los Angeles by presenting an expired boarding pass in another person's name and was found to be in possession of at last 10 similar boarding passes, the TSA issued the following statement:
"Every passenger that passes through security checkpoints is subject to many layers of security including thorough physical screening at the checkpoint. TSA's review of this matter indicates that the passenger went through screening. It is important to note that this passenger was subject to the same physical screening at the checkpoint as other passengers."
While the stowaway succeeded in stealing from the airline by flying free on a clearly fraudulent boarding pass, no evidence was ever found relating the incident to terrorism.
In other words, say critics, the CAT/BPSS is another expensive taxpayer-funded solution to something that, if TSA is doing its job properly, should not be a problem in the first place.