Retinal Scans: The New Airport Time and Money Waster?

Last Updated Dec 14, 2010 5:06 PM EST

Tired of airport security scanners and other gizmos? There may be new ones on the way. Hoyos Corporation announced a retinal scan biometrics trial at Barajas Airport in Madrid. Passengers would presumably get their eyes scanned instead of showing documents, because the blood vessel patterns in retinas are unique to people, and so should allow for unique identification.

I have a call in for details from the company, but in the absence of something overwhelmingly compelling, call me highly dubious. On the surface, this seems like a potentially disastrous idea that could blow up into another privacy issue, cost a lot of money, and fail to do what it was intended to. Here are just some of the issues:

  • Any sort of identification requires initial authentication, because you need the "correct" reference information for comparison. For such a scheme to work broadly, airport personnel would need access to the verified information. Where does this come from? Either a government or a private company would have to scan people's eyes in advance and gain information that is as unique as a DNA match or fingerprints. Ever see how people react at the thought of a national DNA database?
  • Not only does the information have to be available domestically, but also internationally, otherwise, you have no way to verify passengers from another country. So now your data is not only available all over your home country, but all over the world.
  • Once data is available, it gets used. When everyone has to give fingerprints, then government agencies have to use the fingerprints because, after all, they're available, so you might as well really know who you're talking to. Retina scans are the same, only no one has to wipe ink off after.
  • Researchers are on the trail of real retinal transplants made from embryonic stem cells. If that eventually works, you might find that it was possible for people to effectively erase an identity (dare I call it an eye-dentity?), making the usefulness of the approach questionable in the long run.
Even if retinal scans somehow worked in an airport, it would do little to nothing for security. They wouldn't tell you whether a particular person had a weapon or guarantee that someone missing from a terrorist watch list was actually benign. I mean, for heaven's sake, Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage went through a TSA full body scan that missed 12-inch razors he had on him, and no one noticed.

If technology can miss that, I don't put a lot of trust it in making up for all the mistakes that could and probably would happen in the actual processes that people put into place.


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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.