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How much perceived privacy are you willing to give up to reduce pain? That’s one of the questions Alaska Airlines is wrestling with when it comes to bringing biometrics – that is, your fingerprint – to the boarding pass.

And let’s be clear: In air travel, there’s plenty of pain. From opaque ticket pricing to invasive TSA security checks to cramped coach seating, much of “modern” jet transport makes one nostalgic for the less complicated Greyhound long-haul bus.

So when Alaska Airlines previewed a “boarding pass” that just required a fingerprint reader for traveler identification and flight information at the recent GeekWire Summit, this Alaska Million Mile Flyer was intrigued. I’d already signed up the month before for new fingerprint entry (instead of showing a magnetic-strip card or encoded boarding pass) to Alaska’s four Board Room airport clubs.ASBoardRoom

Extending this technology to getting through a security checkpoint and a boarding door was pretty appealing.

No paper boarding pass to print or remember.

No smartphone battery life worries for the equivalent on mobile.

Then an airline staffer almost whispered to me, “What kind of concerns do you think there would be about privacy?”

That question was prescient. A week after the Summit, as coverage hit GeekWire and Bloomberg (of what one analyst dumbly dubbed “e-thumb” technology) a thread immediately appeared on the frequent-flier discussion site FlyerTalk titled, “Give Alaska Airlines the Finger!”

By DoD_Biometrics_Consortium_Conference_13_Sep_2007.pdf: Unknown derivative work: Geo Swan [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons“Totally opposed,” read one comment. “I’ll be wearing a finger cot,” wrote another. A third, while allowing biometrics were the future, weighed in, “I’m not going to be any company’s beta tester for bio data security while the biggest corporate names in the country are losing peoples’ credit card info every week by the tens of millions.”

Others were more measured, citing fingerprint ID use in Manhattan office buildings post-9/11 (“It was, honestly, mega fast”) and at Disney theme parks (“as a Disney Annual Pass holder for the last 8 years, I’ve been pretty desensitized to the idea of fingerprint biometrics.”)

But from my perspective, some concerns seem to confuse private information with personal identity verification. The first is data you’re trying to protect. The second, simply, comes down to: Are you who you say you are?

Your fingerprint is personal, not private. You leave it lots of places without thinking about it (enabling a whole category of detective mystery solutions). It is arguably more secure, and definitely harder to fake, than passwords used for websites or signatures used for checks and credit cards to prove that you are you. Properly encrypted in digital form, a first impression can be mathematically compared to subsequent impressions without ever revealing what the fingerprint visually “looks” like. Coupling it with a second factor – like a photo ID – is even better.TSA Precheck logo TM

And does anyone who flies regularly really think that their information or identification is private? Secure Flight details (full legal name, date of birth, gender) are required by the TSA and gathered by airlines for every ticket sold. Passengers who enroll in TSA’s faster-screening PreCheck program get a full hand of fingerprints scanned – and pay for the privilege. Other traveler programs, such as Global Entry and NEXUS, use five-finger or iris scans for proof of personhood.

The biometric boarding pass that Alaska Airlines is considering actually makes a lot more sense than, say, a Disney theme park biometric annual pass when you realize how much information the airlines and TSA already have. This just simplifies, and arguably makes more secure, passenger, airline and agency access to it. (Whether the government should gather and store such information in the first place is a separate, more contentious issue.)

By Work Projects Administration Poster Collection [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsFor its part, Alaska has a two-decade-long history of using digital tech to ease travel, starting with being the first to sell airline tickets on the web and to allow web check-in. Though the airline won’t officially speculate on how long it might take the biometric boarding pass concept to reach reality (“the largest obstacles that we face are practical ones”), Jerry Tolzman of Alaska Airline’s Innovation Research and Development team sees a day, “when our customers can make their way from the curb to the seat on the aircraft without needing to pull an ID or boarding pass out of their pocket.”

“Imagine using your fingerprint to bypass all the lines at the airport and even pay for your food onboard the flight,” Tolzman envisions.

As I suppress the obvious joke about finger-food, Tolzman notes biometric identification isn’t the only technological approach that’s been considered.

For entry into the airline’s four airport clubs, fingerprints were preceded by a trial of near-field communications (NFC) roughly two years earlier. “We liked that it made it easier for Board Room members to check in,” he says, “but at the time Apple showed no signs of adopting NFC and it would have prevented us from serving many of our members.”

However, all of us carry our fingerprints with us. Tolzman says they worked directly with customers on the boarding pass project and of all the technologies discussed, “fingerprint recognition came to the front.”

He also says choice, reflected in the “traditional means of identification,” will remain for those unwilling to use, or uncomfortable with, biometric boarding passes. Should they become real.

Me, I say bring it, and the sooner the better.

For good or ill, any privacy I have in air travel today is mere perception. A new and more secure convenience that gets me through the entire gate-to-gate process faster would be welcome digital aspirin.

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