Orlando International to Begin Using Iris Recognition

Orlando International Airport will launch a high-tech screening program next week that will confirm employees' identities through photos of their eyes.

The program -- part of a summerlong federal trial of new security measures -- will use scanners no bigger than a standard dictionary to analyze employees' and vendors' irises before granting the workers access to secured areas.

Although only a fraction of the 15,000 airport employees will be screened, the program could later be extended and may pave the way for similar technologies installed for passengers.

The use of biometrics, or the digital analysis of biological characteristics -- facial structure, voice recognition, fingerprints, hand shape, vein patterns or iris patterns -- isn't new. In fact, it's decades old and gaining wider acceptance by security companies and other screening groups for its reliability and convenience.

A handful of banks, for instance, have installed similar gadgets at their automated-teller machines as a safer and more efficient replacement to the standard PIN.

And some airports, such as San Francisco International, already have adopted biometric technologies. There, employees' hand shapes are authorized and authenticated before workers are granted ramp access.

Manufacturers of biometric devices say people may one day use their machines to do everyday activities, from starting their cars to checking their e-mail.

For now, the technology is still in development and not that widespread.

Iris screening, particularly of both eyes at the same time, has been tested at other airports domestically and abroad; however, the OIA trial will verify the scanners' reliability outdoors at a checkpoint often used by some airport crew.

The Transportation Security Administration, which awarded OIA permission to test the system, will track the scanners' reliability and determine how they hold up in Florida's hot, humid climate.

"We're always looking for better ways to improve security," said Art Meinke, a TSA federal security director. "Today we're walking around with badges. While that's good, this type of security would give us another layer of protection."

Scanning an iris -- the colored part of a person's eye -- is considered a particularly reliable way to verify someone's identity, said Richard Norton, executive vice president of the National Biometric Security Project, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

Unlike fingerprints, which have about 25 unique characteristics and can get scratched or scarred, every iris has more than 250. Iris patterns won't change with time, whereas people's facial structure may appear altered as they age.

Users of an iris-recognition scanner can do so while wearing glasses or contact lenses. The outdoor trial run at OIA will likely test the device's reliability when employees wear sunglasses.

It's also relatively quick and non-intrusive. A video camera with a close-up lens takes a picture of both irises from about two feet away. The real-time image is then compared in seconds with a previously captured one, which has been digitally encoded and sorted.

"Biometrics is key in the future of verifying a person's identify," said Brigitte Rivera Goersch, director of security at the airport. "And we have it. We're gaining experience with a type of technology that we'll probably see again later."

In August, at the end of the trial, OIA will have the option of taking over operations of the machines from the TSA.

Neither Goersch nor Meinke would say how much the scanners at OIA cost. Others on the market can sell for as little as $250 to more than several thousand dollars.

Initially, OIA will perform iris scans on about 500 employees and vendors who will also be screened by traditional methods to ensure security.

Passengers could see a similar technology soon.

The airport plans next month to launch the known-traveler program, in which frequent fliers can voluntarily provide detailed background information, granting them speedier access through airport-security checkpoints.

Goersch said OIA plans to incorporate biometric technologies during that program, possibly including iris scans or fingerprints.

"One of the challenges we face is maintaining a high level of security, while at the same time maintaining a high level of customer service," said Bill Jennings, executive director at OIA.

OIA has earned a reputation in the industry for its push to test and incorporate new technologies.

In the past, the airport has tried body X-ray systems and an explosive-detection system.

"Orlando airport isn't as far along as some others, like the San Francisco airport," Norton said. "But its willingness to step forward, try new technologies and learn from them has earned it a reputation for being innovative."

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