At the airport: The future of checkpoint delta

By Sanjay Dharwadker – WCC Smart Search & Match.

Shrouded in the mysteries of Cold War espionage stories, Checkpoint Charlie has captured our imaginations as the ultimate border crossing for over half a century now. When the Berlin Wall finally came down, it had 14 checkpoints known by the names of their respective neighborhoods. But earlier, they bore signage in the aviator alphabet – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie. Somehow, the name of the Friedrichstraße crossing persisted: Checkpoint Charlie. Even as a tourist attraction, it remains a reminder of a sad aspect of nation-state politics: that of dividing people from people.

Today, this drama has shifted to the Airport – a microcosm to be examined in great detail by anyone dealing in security policy, strategy, or technology. No doubt, 9/11 and its aftermath have been the most important reason for this focus. The airport is a true twenty-first-century icon, not just in scale, but also in opportunity; for example, of great architecture and commerce. But alongside, there are the vulnerabilities of post-cold-war politics and terrorism. In a world that wavers between borderless globalization and xenophobia, the airport has to be many things at once for its different users. It unites in a single location both the ideas and the reality of security, territory, and population. It brings together a complex web of local, national, and international laws, as well as surveillance for conflicting reasons – on behalf of companies, governments, and individuals. It connects many social spheres, and must provide containment amidst an illusion of infinite freedom. Thus, the airport is both the definition of an immense problem, as well as a statement of its grand solution.

All kinds of people converge at the airport. By the end of this decade, around half a billion passport holders will pass through national and international airports around seven billion times yearly. Already there is pressure to treat the elite with instant service without queuing. Archaic instruments like the visa cause additional bottlenecks in an already overstretched service infrastructure. Many of the sixty-five million internationally displaced persons also arrive at international airports, many seeking asylum, some in conditions of statelessness. Amidst all this are individuals attempting to travel on one of the over 60 million stolen or lost travel documents, individuals suspected of commercial crime, smuggling, and trafficking, and individuals with a criminal background and intent. Finally, there are the dreaded terrorists, whose detection and interception could prevent untold loss and tragedy. They may arrive disguised across the entire spectrum – from the elite to the asylum seeker. There is no way to tell which persona they will don next.

Airports have the dual objective of maximizing national security and maximizing commerce. This leads to complex layouts alternating wide open spaces with narrow passages and barriers, optimizing for space, speed, and security. Security initially was considered a question of minimizing the time to process. Today the focus is on the outcome. In general, security depends on ID documents, identification and detection devices, CCTV, and data such as no-fly lists. Individually, each has well- understood shortcomings, but together, they do provide a system that seems to hold. Recent years saw the addition of strategies of risk management, more comprehensive post-event assessment, and somewhat controversially, using databases as an instrument of selection, separation, and exclusion. Ideally, passports serve well for external movement. However, the use of ID cards for internal movement opens up many issues of acceptability, standards, and authentication. Similarly, despite constant advancements both in the technology and practice, biometrics as valves that control global flows of humanity might be restricted only to international border crossing.

For the airport, the goal underlying its laws, regulations, procedures, and technologies is to facilitate global mobility and at the same time fortress countries and continents as needed. Smart Borders has become a euphemism for the increasing use of biometrics (mainly face and fingerprints) in this context. Already the mobile phone and biometric payment authentication, between the power of one and the authority of the other, provide even greater capacity to organize the identification of individuals. Newer ID schemes have already breached the conventional distinction between the government and the commercial, domestic and international, and the inside and the outside. However, experts reckon that despite techniques being available, they have not been put together in the most effective way for the identification, classification, and management of individuals and groups sorted by ‘level of dangerousness’.

Three specific areas have immediate potential. First, biographic search helps investigators look beyond singular physical identification characteristics. Second, biometric silos need to be turned upside down and provided with connecting passageways. Thus names, locations, faces, and other specifics can be looked at more holistically and intuitively, like a human mind would. Third, there is the hypothesis that identity itself is not the final frontier of security; it is the knowing that there is intent. One of the important functions of an airport is segregating the streams among the frequent-flying “kinetic elite”, the more general classes, the refugees and vagabond immigrants (some needing deportation), and finally those that need a closer look for security reasons. The aim is not only being able to foil their passage at arrival or departure, but also to keep the airport itself out of reach as a target. This gave rise to the current debate between behavior-based and identity-based techniques. Objections abound, and these too need to be addressed, especially those related to privacy, protection, due process, discrimination, and international law and conventions.

Already businesses, airlines and governments are imposing visible and invisible levies that support all means of security at the airport. With annual airport traffic projected to touch seven billion passengers via thirty-five million flights in one hundred and ninety-one countries, the nine thousand-odd airports where they originate and land assume more importance than ever before. Not one of them is known as Checkpoint Delta, but may the spectre of Checkpoint Charlie long continue to remind us of the things that change and the things that remain the same.

A longer version of this article was previously published in the Access & Identity Management Handbook 2017.

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Categories: border management

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