Going to the airport soon could resemble a scene from "Mission Impossible" — security personnel snap your photo and scan your fingerprints, analysts run your name through a web of computer systems and the government assigns you a color to designate your threat potential.
Some of these security efforts are already in place for foreign visitors but some say the federal government is looking at a variety of homeland security technologies to broaden and intensify their reach. And some groups and lawmakers want to ensure these new technologies don't infringe upon privacy rights.
The first part of the system is already in place. Called US-VISIT, which operates in 115 airports and 14 seaports, the government is using biometrics (search) — technology that identifies people using biological traits, such as those based on retinal or iris scanning, fingerprints, or face recognition — to verify the identities of many foreign visitors with non-immigrant visas.
Digital fingerprints and photographs are recorded and terror watch lists are checked to make sure potential terrorists don't enter the country.
"I think you're seeing with the US-VISIT just the first step in a series of steps so we get a fully integrated record of who comes into the country and who leaves," Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) said in a recent interview.
Some of the other steps include:
— Install biometric equipment and software at all ports of entry to verify visitors so biometric passports complete with a smart chip and full-face image can be used. The deadline for this to take place is Oct. 26.
— Require foreign visitors with visas to do a finger scan as they leave the United States, not just when they arrive in the country. The initiative is currently being tested at Baltimore-Washington International Airport using kiosk scanners.
— Expand the use of smart cards — a credit-card sized plastic card with an embedded computer chip that can either be a microprocessor or a memory chip. The chip connection is either via direct physical contact or remotely via an electromagnetic interface.
— Create a Transportation Worker Identification Credential — a smart card to be issued by public and private employees who have access to secure areas of ports, railways and airports. TWIC production has begun in some areas of the country.
— Authenticate the identity of airline passengers by checking their records — name, address and date of birth — against commercial databases and terror watch lists. Each passenger will be labeled — green, yellow or red — depending on their threat risk.
"When there's a green light, all that [passenger] information that went into analyzing that passenger, it goes away, disappears," said Peter Kant, vice president of Jefferson Consulting, which represents several companies working on the program, which is known as CAPPS II.
"But when there's a red light, that's when they're detaining the passenger and all those bells and whistles happen and that information will be used for legal reasons," Kant continued.
Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, airlines conducted a passenger screening known as CAPPS I — the Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System (search). CAPPS II, the next-generation system, will replace that and will be government run.
The General Accounting Office is studying that program's privacy implications and effectiveness before Congress gives it the go-ahead.
"The public understandably wants to know if CAPPS II is going to require all airlines to disclose, on a regular basis," said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (search) (EPIC). The federal Transportation Security Agency said that could be as early as next month.
Going Behind the Scenes
But there are also some efforts travelers likely won't notice as the government tries to determine who is and isn't potentially dangerous.
"I think the technology that will have the most impact are the technologies that you don’t see," said Laurance Alvarado, managing director of global trade management for BearingPoint, which has been awarded a $13.8 million contract by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to boost cargo security.
There's much interest, for example, in using radio frequency identification (RFID) to track cargo through supply chains. Wal-Mart currently uses this tracking system.
"It's the ability to take different types of information and be able to share that information almost on a real-time basis at all ports of entry," Alvarado said.
Cargo security is a huge area of concern for government and industry because "the security hole is so large," Kant said.
Ports are looking at night-vision cameras that keep a watch on piers at night, swimmer-detection sonar and thermal imagers, among other things, according to Port Security Strategies. Remote-controlled vehicles also are being studied to inspect ship's hull for explosives.
Terror groups like Al Qaeda reportedly have thought of using combat swimmers to destroy or hijack ships.
Another method to deter terrorism is data mining (search), said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America (search). Data mining refers to any number of techniques where a database is used to look for hidden facts, details or relationships.
"What the data mining allows you to do is pull that together and say 'we've seen a major increase in HAZMAT activity in four cities' … individually, these cities may not think much of it ... but maybe the terrorists are actually probing the system," Miller said.
Or maybe there's a "major spike in fertilizer sales … that may be an indicator that there's a group of terrorists out there trying to imitate what Timothy McVeigh did and build a fertilizer-based car bomb," Miller added.
In 1995, McVeigh parked a moving truck filled with such explosives outside the federal building in Oklahoma City, which exploded and killed 168 people.
More sophisticated technologies used to detect substances such as chemical or biological agents also are in the pipeline, said Bruce de Grazia, chairman of the Homeland Security Industries Association (search).
"Detection devices they have traditionally had for those agents are big, they're slow and they have not been particularly accurate," de Grazia said. The Department of Homeland Security is looking for "some truly portable devices for biological agents that not only are less than the size of a room but also require far less of the agent to be able to detect it."
Privacy Concerns Pose Worries
But some technologies, such as those that use biometrics, are coming under fire for being too intrusive.
For example, Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., wrote a letter to Ridge last month citing concern over biometrics-based technologies. Various privacy groups and other lawmakers have also said some homeland security programs need more congressional oversight.
But others say it's better to be safe than sorry.
"I think the American people are very open to these things," Miller said. "People understand we are living in a different time … as long as there's some rationale for it, I think people are going to be fairly accepting."