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Fingerprint, iris scans for airport employees
Canada to use first biometric system in world

Toronto Star/KEVIN MCGRAN | December 7 2005

Canada's airports will be more secure by April, when a $10-million program to fingerprint and scan the irises of the country's 120,000 airport workers is finally in place.

It's the first biometric-based national airport security system in the world, says Mark Duncan, executive vice-president of the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, the Crown corporation set up following the 2001 terror attacks in the U.S.

Unique features of the security pass, about the size of a credit card, mean "there is only one of you, that you are who you say you are, and you can't lend a pass to someone else," said Duncan in displaying how the technology works. "It's an added layer of security."

The system would reduce the chance of an unauthorized person getting into a restricted area and save money by cutting security guards.

It means employees can trust each other, and that any worker — a pilot or flight attendant, for example — who works in many airports can have an easier time passing through security.

It may take the Greater Toronto Airports Authority — which has 40,000 workers to enrol — longer than the April target to fully implement the initiative, but the airport backs the project, said spokeswoman Connie Turner.

"It will be a long process," said Turner. "It gives us another level of security."

The initiative also has the support of the Air Canada Pilots Association. Their worries that the iris scanner could hurt vision were long ago been laid to rest, said spokesman Jean-Marc Belanger.

It works like this: Workers who have been cleared by the RCMP and CSIS to work in secure areas of an airport have their fingerprints and irises scanned. Those unique features are given a code based on a mathematical algorithm. Those codes are linked up with personal information, such as name, height, address, eye colour, hair colour and skin colour and housed in the system's database in Ottawa and installed in a chip on a security card, which also has a photo.

The copies of the fingerprints and iris are destroyed, leaving only the code.

When an employee needs to go through a secure door, he or she swipes the card and then is asked for a fingerprint or an iris scan. They're both non-invasive, painless techniques. Again, the fingerprint or iris scan is turned into a code and must match the code on the card. Approval or rejection is determined in one or two seconds.

"From a security standpoint, it removes the issue of false identity," said Duncan.

Five airports already have the biometrics system: Montreal, Calgary, Vancouver, Kelowna and Charlottetown. Most of the rest are beginning the enrolment process. It will be the law by April that airports use the technology.

Airport workers who will be subject to the biometrics process include pilots, flight attendants, baggage handlers, caterers, concession workers and electricians — anyone who needs to be on the "secure" side of the airport, said Duncan.

Biometrics — the science of using a person's unique physiological characteristics to verify identity — is the coming wave of traveller security.

Canada Customs uses an iris scan system called CANPASS-Air, to speed up travel between Canada and the U.S. for pre-approved, low-risk travellers. It's available at Pearson and costs $50 a year. The system recognizes the iris as proof of identity.

Truck drivers can have their fingerprints registered to cross borders smoothly in a system called Free and Secure Trade (FAST). Those who travel frequently to the U.S. by car can sign up for NEXUS, another iris-scanning program.

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