dystopian travel

Jan 22, 2017

Let’s think again about the airport of the near future

The push to IT revolutionize airports is on in earnest, but without action to curb its terrifying dystopian ramifications

Ben Sandilands — Editor of Plane Talking

Ben Sandilands

Editor of Plane Talking

The dark side of ‘improved’ people management at airports beckons

A far sighted vision of biometrically managed Australian airports where passports, forms, and human interaction with passengers are unnecessary is the most read story on the Sydney Morning Herald click me, click me media site this morning, and it deserves to be for its implications.

It is followed in clicks by a story about how distrustful Australian society has become, and raises some very important issues that go way beyond the now commonplace use of air travel in much of the world.

This story, by Michael Koziol, is in terms of IT today, far from fanciful or distant. It will ‘come to pass’ in all of its component predictions and ‘come together’ in essentially the manner described, or so airport and air transport visionaries have been saying in recent years.

There are a few barriers to overcome, in terms of the technology. Those that relate to how society should use, or prescribe the use of this technology, will be likely to prove more change resistant, as there are compelling and alarming reasons for concern about where such technology might lead us.

The technological barriers include a need for a three to four magnitude improvement in the reliability of biometric ID and tracking systems, that is somewhere between their being rendered 1000 to 10,000 times more reliable or less prone to failure or data hacking than they are today.

Don’t laugh. Such measures of improvement are far from unattainable, and will run in parallel to the inevitable development of robust and safe driverless cars, the elimination of all traffic lights or costly overpasses on motorways, and the use of registered, banking details linked, retinal scan data bases that remove the need for Opal or Myki transport cards or physical EFTPOS and cash checkouts at supermarkets.

It’s the political and social and privacy risks that could be the killer factors, perhaps literally. At the moment from personal, family and associate experiences, the biometric scanning machines used as passport readers are insufficiently reliable at major airports. Whether the failures are motivated by contemporary Luddites in organised labour or the curse of marketing that far exceeds real world performance, is a matter of opinion. But I have witnessed Sydney Airport just wave people through border protocols because the pressure of incoming passengers versus totally stuffed up scanners, and pathetically undermanned physical check points, was clearly more intolerable than the risk of an undesirable passenger being undetected by the so called Border Force.

As an old white guy I’ve been waved through a number of check points at home and abroad,  and even the Opalcard checkers on Sydney trains flick pass me at times when the Opal Force ambushes a peak hour carriage stuffed full of many more commuters than ever intended.

As the capability of IT technology to deliver fast and efficient checking and tracking of masses of people rises, so does the level of distrust. Given the lies about security of personal data that have been exposed during the last Australian census, the chronic failings of the Centrelink robo data scamming of society’s most vulnerable voters, and the massive 2012 Yahoo data breach (and a few urgent warnings from my own bank after an employee fraudulently garnisheed a huge number of credit cards for a few extra cents per victim per month) trust in the will or ability of IT to put private data security first must be close to zero.

The potential misuse of data by next generation border control protocols could fulfill some of the worst visions of dystopian sci-fi writers and those in IT who manage to see clearly through the fog of group think. It could be used to find and block those who follow Gods and Prophets unacceptable to authority, as well as the provably criminally compromised that infest the ranks of financial advisers, clergy, and those nasty dangerous people practising environmental science as part of Senator Robert’s hysterical ravings about zionist, green, UN supported would be world dominators.

If IT is controlled by ‘people like us’, the really boring, conventional and compliant fools who accept governments at their word, then it can be readily used to suppress or marginalise those who are ‘not like us’, have different coloured skin, or dare to move beyond their expected social station.

(And for those readers who are literal minded, please look up definitions and examples of ‘irony’ or ‘satire’ at this point.)

The technology that will inevitably greatly improve the efficiency and security of using airports, buying groceries, and moving about by road and public transport systems, creates massive amounts of ‘big data’ as well as individually identifiable data.

It is just as important to manage and define the limits and responsibilities of that power as it is to harness its benefits.  So far, little seems to be being done to recognise or deal with abuses that weren’t even foreseen by George Orwell when he published Nineteen Eight Four in 1949.

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15 thoughts on “Let’s think again about the airport of the near future

  1. Dan Dair

    As Scottish comedian, Frankie Boyle said;
    “Oh, I’ve lost my biometric passport.
    I’ll apply for a new one.
    All I’ll need are new eyes, fingers & DNA.!”

  2. comet

    “…Senator Robert’s hysterical ravings…”

    Ah, One Nation. One track minds. One point IQ.

    Actually, Pauline Hanson was inspired by, and got the name from One Australia, which was PM John Howard’s policy document against Asian immigration. One Australia was in turn inspired by White Australia, the bipartisan policy against Asian immigration. I just mention these policies, but don’t agree with them.

    But only a week ago One Nation politicians were claiming the Port Arthur Massacre never happened. This can only be explained by understanding One Nation is not only the party of delusion, it is the party for the mentally insane. Utter madness.

  3. Mark Parker

    As someone who works with emerging technology such as IoT and augmented reality – these initiatives are really exciting – until I sober up and realise that they are likely going to be delivered by “IT experts” such as IBM, into the hands of servants, who will, given the pace of technology change, not understand what they have at their disposal nor the implications of inappropriate access or use – but smarter, more nefarious people (like those mentioned in your article) will..!

    As you have quite rightly noted, there are always two or more sides to every story – there are security benefits to be realised – lets catch more bad guys; whilst the whole entry to Australia for tired travellers could be streamlined and made contextually more relevant – “Mr Parker, stop now and spend $X in duty free and your bags will come out first”…

    However, security, sovereignty, and privacy are three key issues that are not being discussed in a meaningful way within IT, which means they’re not getting any thought outside the tech space. How many of us are aware of, or have followed the metadata case bought by Fairfax journo Ben Grubb against Telstra?

    As it stands our current laws DO NOT adequately address the complex nature of how we communicate and live – yet the Federal Government wants to rush us further down this road by using biometric data to process people…

    What I see coming through the tech pipeline is really exciting – but exciting needs to be tempered with a vigorous, independent debate about implications…

    1. Dan Dair

      With the greatest respect to you & your skills in this field,
      my problem with heightened reliance on technology is that more information is electronically stored & therefor available to be stolen via the very talented hacker.

      Those who want this information are able to employ the absolute best hackers in the world, because this information is so valuable.

      I really don’t see the sense in pursuing this particular line of R&D from a practical rather than ‘blue-sky’ research point-of-view, until the world has become much more of a single community.?

      Since Russian & Chinese government ‘cyber-soldiers’ are known to have attacked US government and businesses (& I’ve no doubt that the US & other nations have similar armies of hackers doing similar tasks), the more information we store online, the more there is to be stolen & used against us.?
      Incidentally, what would be the prospect of ‘known’ criminals & terrorists hacking into worldwide databases & changing their information,
      so that the intelligence agencies & border guards end up looking for the wrong person or not looking for the right one.?

      1. Mark Parker

        We’re both on the same page (or at least the same chapter!) in relation to security. The volumes of data being collected and stored often by third-party vendors (such as IBM, Microsoft, Amazon etc) is incredible – so yes, the risk of theft or nefarious manipulation is very real.

        The should we do this question – the R&D part – I disagree. The fact is we have to improve border processing – most processes are stupid and broken – as Ben noted above, to have Border Force soldiers simply waving people through due to overload is not good enough – even dumb criminals will work this out!

        The how we manage this information, how its made secure, who is accountable – these are the questions and debates we are yet to have.

        1. Dan Dair

          Mark, I’m definitely on the same page regarding
          ‘waving people through’. It’s not nearly good enough.

          The issue about overload, IMO is a combination of the speed of computer systems to acquire, analyse & present the data to the border guard, but also & perhaps more significantly, that there actually are sufficient staff on-duty to deal with the volumes of people arriving at the border control desks.

          One of the things Australia has in its favour on this matter over many other nations, is that it’s not near anywhere.!!
          Consequently, Australia’s border security logistics team has between 3 hours and a whole day, to plan to have enough border guards on duty when the aircraft land.!
          Technology will not resolve these cost-cutting issues.?
          I believe that the ‘blue-sky’ research, for a time in the future when hacking is either no-longer possible or no-longer warranted, is worthwhile.
          The trouble is the accountants within tech. companies will then try to sell that ‘product’ to get their R&D costs back, even though the world is clearly not ready for even more personal & semi-personal data to be stored online.???

  4. Rais

    A friend of mine has only a couple of fingers and no fingerprints. I don’t know how biometric will handle that blank in the data.

    1. ian kemp

      Rais, very simple. In fact he is one in a million – easily identified.

  5. Tango

    OUr city is int he process of installing so called smart meters.
    A log of yadi yadi about how they can tell the power is out (hmm, people call in just infe)

    When all was sadi and done it has to do witrh convenient for them, theyu can shut off (or turn-on) from the Headquareters .

    All well and nice, but so far no one has proved to be immune from hacking, so this is a great way to let various types including Russian, China an N. Korea turnout power off! Have to love it. We get what out of it?

    The other one? Well a guy was killed at a party. They used the water meter to track his water usage and using that to determine he was washing the guys blood off a patio.
    Granted that is nice, but it also means its another means to spy on people (including aforementioned entities) . I can see a setup in this.

    Think I am paranoid? We had a case of a motor home owner whose engine blew up.

    They back tracked it and accused him of doing 100 mph with it (older guy, clean record, retired ?

    Now they do drive those motor homes up from the states, young kid, downhill, maybe. But they dont’ check the log nor does the log say when, just it did.

    Hard to believe a motor home doing 100 mph even with Mario Andretti at the helm let alone on anything short of a racetrack.

    So there you go, no protections, can fight it, warranty denied.

  6. caf

    Never mind the airport of the future, it looks like the airlines of the present are struggling enough: http://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/all-united-airlines-domestic-flights-grounded-computer-outage-n710596

  7. graybul

    I see the complexities of ‘needing to know.’ But the mere thought that individuals like Minister Dutton get to write, oversight and enforce the rules, frightens the very life out of me. We cannot deny our species path or future as planned for us; nor can we refuse participation or accommodate the stripping away of self determination. Bio metric control is the future . . . given we can no longer move freely alongside another; for fear of potential irrational or deliberate violence.

    1. Dan Dair

      I don’t take issue with your argument,
      I merely point out that so long as online data is capable of being hacked, it isn’t secure.!
      If it isn’t secure, why put more & more data online until it has actually, really been made secure.?

      Your personal, physical security is important to you, but in order to achieve that, your biometric electronic data is being increased, which reduces your personal security in another area.!
      At the moment, it’s just a vicious circle.

      1. Tango

        The entire US airport security data base was hacked (amongst a large number of agencies)

        Why? There is a section of US movement that others hire out for their background data storage (including anyone who works at an airport)

        End results, all my most sensitive data is in Chinese hands. We are talking about deep background security check data.

        The only reason I found out about it was my brothers wife was told via a so called “letter”. He did not get it, (former airport worker). He checks, yep, he was on the list, but did not get the “letter”

        I checked, yep, I am on the list but did not get the “letter”
        Until they can come up with bullet proof methods of security, none of it should be accessible. You call a clerk, get confirmation you have a right to it, he goes and pulls the file and sends it, one at a time.

        this is truly insane.

        None of it is for OUR benefit.

        They can spew stuff all day long, what it amounts to is more money spent on data no one uses for anything worth while (unless you call employment for IT types a benefit ) and then it gets hacked.

        Most times its the same IT types who do not even follow basic security procedures and keep their servers updated that cause this.

        Cookies on you computer so they can enhance your shopping experience!

        First maybe I don’t want it enhanced, cant’ get on a site without them.

        And after they decide what I want, they are full of you know what as the infamous XMAS goose.

  8. derrida derider

    Using biometrics for control is subject to two types of error – falsely labelling a bystander as a suspect (Type 1) and falsely labelling a suspect as a bystander (Type 2). Type 1 is little problem in this particular application (though it can be a big problem in other contexts) – bystanders so identified are then just subject to the old fashioned control of showing their passport to a customs officer. Type 2 is only a problem if is reasonably large – if it only picks up 99% of those on your ‘do not fly’ list it has still reduced your risk a hundredfold over no screening.
    My point is that it is not automating the control process that is objectionable per se – it’s the tightness of the control process, manual or automated, that is the issue. And if that’s appropriate some error in the automated part of is tolerable.

  9. Dan Dair

    I’ve just noticed the sub-heading “Dystopian Travel”

    I’m sure they used to have a branch in the main street near me……?

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