Airport Security - Can Wireless Help?
by Nicki Hayes, November 20, 2001
RFID (radio frequency identification) is a hot topic these days. But can it add any value to the world's
current airport security debate? WDN asks Jon Karlen, director of product management for NTRU,
provider of the world's highest performance wireless security solutions.
RFID seems to be hitting the headlines in all walks of life recently, from revolutionizing the retail
experience, to streamlining supply chain management - or any business that involves ticketing or tagging
come to that. Airline security is another area in which RFID is being touted. But, given that RFID
technology does not currently include any level of security, can it add any value here?
The value-add RFID brings to its forerunners, barcode technology and magnetic strip swipe cards, is that of
cost and speed. Take the example of airline tickets - because RFID tickets do not require line of sight,
travelers can be checked in far more efficiently - a 99 percent read-through compared to a 70 percent
read-through apparently. Add the consequent cost savings here to those related to savings in associated
infrastructure and there is a compelling business case for RFID. But is there an argument for this improving
Then there's the whole area of baggage tagging. Again, contactless RFID tags increase efficiency in the
same way as ticketing. Additionally they make it possible to match baggage loaded on planes with its
owners. Here there is a security benefit. Take the bombing of the Pan Am plane over Lockerbie, Scotland
in 1998. The bomb was traced to a suitcase that did not belong to anyone on board. Baggage tracking using
RFID technology could eliminate this risk in future. But is this the only way in which RFID improves
Not according to Jon Karlen, director of product management for NTRU, provider of the world's highest
performance wireless security solutions.
Take the general picture:
"We are in an era where rigorous security checks incur extra time for both passengers and the airlines and
extra costs for the airlines. Any action that increases efficiency and decreases costs at airports will free up
resources and facilitate a stronger focus on security," advises Jon.
Take the scenario of ticketing:
"A lot of airlines are looking for creative ways to let their higher value lower risk passengers go through
security check points quickly. Secure RFID provides such an opportunity by allowing frequent flier cards
or tickets to contain encrypted information that provides authentication of the passengers' identity.
Biometrics could even be included, scanning irises for authentication for example. Increasing efficiency in
this way will provide a fast return on investment, improve the traveling experience of high value customers
and the speed of security checks".
Then there's the baggage tagging scenario:
"Well, RFID tagging allows airlines to match passengers to bags. This means bags belonging to passengers
that have not boarded can be instantly identified and removed, eliminating the need for the entire flight to
leave the plane and identify baggage so that the missing person's baggage can be removed. This saves time,
money and improves the passengers' experience," advises Jon.
At this point it's probably worth pointing out that RFID will eliminate a lot of the problems associated to
lost baggage too - which will have an indirect effect on security. Lost, delayed and damaged baggage is
always high on the list of passenger gripes in consumer surveys. In the US alone half a percent of all
checked luggage is mishandled or lost according to the Department of Transportation - that's around 2.5
million bags a year for the top 10 US carriers alone. Imagine the cost and time saved using RFID baggage
tags, time and money that could be spent improving security. But this is an indirect benefit. Are there any
other ways in which RFID technology directly impacts on airline security?
"There are other ways in which RFID can directly improve security if technology facilitating authentication
can be added to such tags. We are currently in discussions with the FAA and various RFID manufacturers
about this, but for now, such information is confidential," Jon concludes.
A hint of a break-through in airport security. Now he really has my attention! But hang on a minute. RFID
technology is not currently secure. It does not allow the type of authentication Jon refers to because in order
for RFID applications to contain such information, co-processors need to be included. The cost of such co-
processors is currently prohibitive. Co-processors also have a negative impact on the performance of RFID
applications because of the extra power they require. So what does Jon know that we don't?
"RFID applications can provide authentication without the need to go to the expense of a co-processor now.
NTRU's unique patented technology, based on an algorithm that is thousands of times faster than the
current algorithm upon which PKI applications are based and that has 1/50th of the conventional footprint,
facilitates this. This technology provides ultrafast public-key cryptography and strong protection on RFID
tickets and tags and within other constrained wireless environments," Jon reveals.
But what about the mystery secure application to which he refers?
Well, he could tell me but he'd have to shoot me. I'm on a promise though so, watch this space…
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About the author:
Nicki Hayes is a freelance writer and corporate communications consultant specialising in business to business internet issues. She has contributed editorial to a number of publications including Unstrung.com, Guardian Online, Financial Times, Banking & Financial Training, eAI Journal and Secure Computing. Nicki is also the European correspondent for The Wireless Developer Network. Nicki is based in Dublin, Ireland and also has a base in Cambridge, UK. Through her consultancy, Hayes-Singh Associates, she has access to a number of technical writers and PR consultants throughout Ireland and the UK.
About the WirelessDevNet (www.wirelessdevnet.com):
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