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TSA testing electronic document checkers at select airports

By Aaron Cooper, CNN
updated 5:25 PM EDT, Fri April 13, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The pilot program is aimed at verifying boarding passes and IDs of passengers
  • Dulles airport is the first of three airports to get the machines
  • The program will also be tested in Houston and San Juan
  • The devices are designed to check documents in a "matter of seconds," TSA official says

Washington (CNN) -- The Transportation Security Administration is unveiling new technology this month at several airports aimed at verifying boarding passes and IDs of passengers.

A total of 30 machines from three different companies will be tested at Dulles International Airport near Washington, George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston and the San Juan airport in Puerto Rico. Dulles received the first of the machines and began rolling them out Wednesday.

"We feel that this technology is a step up from the current technology we are using today," said Domenic Bianchini, director of TSA's checkpoint technology.

Each company's machine looks different, has different software and uses different algorithms, but for passengers they all operate in a similar way.

Travelers approaching the credential authentication system scan their boarding pass bar code on the front of a large computer-equipped podium.

They then give the boarding pass and their identification to a TSA employee who puts it in a scanner.

The computer scans the materials and checks to make sure such security features as holograms and bar codes are present.

The passengers' information from the ID and boarding pass is displayed on the computer screen, along with their photo scanned from their ID. The machine compares all the data collected from the front and back of the ID and the boarding pass. If everything matches, the TSA agent is then prompted to allow the passenger to proceed.

"If there aren't any alerts at all, basically it's a green light," Bianchini said. "They will process the individual and ask them to proceed to the checkpoint."

If the data doesn't match, agents are able to look at screens showing the information scanned and identify where there is a discrepancy and potentially find a fraudulent ID or boarding pass.

"We'll be able to look and see what specific security feature may have caused an alert and that allows the officer to focus their attention in a specific area," Bianchini said.

Bianchini said he is not aware of any fraudulent documents found so far. One TSA employee at Dulles said he found an apparent mistake by a state which issued a passenger's driver's license that provided one gender on the front and another gender in the bar code on the back of the license. TSA spokespeople asked the employee to stop relaying that story, and would not comment on how the devices have worked since being deployed at Dulles.

The machines do not save the information collected once the agent clears the data to advance to the next passenger, according to the TSA, and passenger data is not checked against any watch lists or other databases.

The devices are designed to check documents in a "matter of seconds," Bianchini said.

TSA officials would not specify any predicted time it will take passengers to go through the machine, or if it would take longer than the traditional manual ID check currently in place.

"We don't have data with passengers at this point," said TSA spokesman Greg Soule, noting it was a pilot program.

CNN timed a handful of passengers going through one machine at the Dulles checkpoint Friday.

Most people spent about 30 seconds at the machine, however the TSA agent operating it had to call over another agent several times for help.

One passenger spent more than a minute and a half at the machine; another spent two and a half minutes.

"We are getting that first experience. Then, over time, we hope to see more familiarity with that technology and faster processing," Bianchini said.

The initial pilot machines cost about $3.2 million, or a little more than $100,000 each.

The program deals only with document checkers that passengers encounter at the entrance to the checkpoint. It does not change the existing screening inside, including metal detectors, body scanners and X-ray machines.

The pilot program is scheduled to expand to Houston on Tuesday and San Juan on April 23 and is expected to last several months.

"Once the testing is complete, TSA will make a final determination if we can roll out one or more of these technologies into the airports," Bianchini said. "The intent is to have a system like this at every airport checkpoint in the country."

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