Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A Value Sensitive Design Approach to Airport Screening Systems

A brief overview of how to improve the airport screening process

Airport security has served as the forefront to operating the traveling process for travelers entering and exiting the airport.  Long lines, along with passenger and baggage checkpoints are core elements that affect the traveler’s experience.  Aside from my personal issues with specific screening process’, most of the people that I know have experienced similar airport screening issues at some point in their lives, in which they were either harassed, had failed the security checkpoint test or in most cases lost their ticket or identification card.  Especially after the 9/11 attacks, TSA (Transportation Security Administration) had been mandated by law to appropriately screen air travelers to ensure that certain items and persons prohibited from flying could not board commercial airlines (Security Screening, 2009). This federalizing of airport security was built on two assumptions: first one being that all passengers are equally suspicious and should receive the same scrutiny and secondly that the principal purpose of airport security is to keep dangerous objects (e.g., knives, guns and bottles) off airplanes (Poole, Carafano, 2006).  In addition to the increase to the federalized process of security, technical security screening improvements also increased as well. 

Socio-technical Problem Space

In a published article by Mathew L. Wald of the New York Times, screening technology in airports has been of discussion amongst TSA and government officials, in regards to the “reshaping” of airport screening technology in the U.S.   Wald points out that the U.S. has moved towards reshaping airport screening technology by implementing new computer systems that rely primarily on the governments database system, in which the personal information of passengers would be prescreened along with the traditional screening process.  Wald points out that their goal is to try to select about 4 percent of all passengers for more intense security, compared with the 14 percent identified by older systems.  However, even with these improved technical changes, many subjective issues still remain through this increase of trying to protect passengers. 

Cases of random or biased selection are still apparent in the screening process, however it seems that passengers are still “wrongfully” identified as “terrorist” depending on if their name is similar to a name on the “F.B.I. Terrorist” watch list, if they make last minute flight changes, or if they’re physical representation or ID raises suspicion to the TSA administrator (Security Training).  That is why my solution to this problem would be a design approach to a “finger-printing” screening process. In which people would no longer have to show forms of identification and boarding pass’ when going through the security checkpoint or when entering the plane, just their thumbs.

Questions that could arise:

1. How much would these systems cost?

2. Who would design and issue out the new systems to airports?

3. How is the government going to issue everyone a fingerprint?

4. What type of fingerprinting would airports take?

1. How much would these systems cost?

According to Poole and Carafano’s “Time to Rethink Airport Security” article, Government investments, along with taxpayers and airline travelers’ funds have been used to support the TSA’s annual budget, which in 2005 was primarily devoted to new baggage and passenger screening systems. My solution would be for the government to revise the new budget based upon systems that are supported already in law enforcement budgets, because law enforcement agencies already use this new type of screening method.

2. Who would design and issue out the new systems to airports?

SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation) is a company that specializes in solving critical problems with innovative applications of technology and expertise (Airport Security, 2009).  In addition, SAIC has been recognized as a leader within the Airport and Cargo security field. In particular, SAIC has experience in Airport Security Systems Integration Design and Installation, Smart Cards and Biometrics and Information Security (INFOSEC).  Airport Security Systems Integration Design and Installation could be applied to the design of the new screening system, because SAIC project managers are supported by Professional Engineers, who are up to date on the latest technologies and their deployments with varying environmental conditions (Airport Security).  Smart Cards and Biometrics could also be applied to the development of the new screening process, because they deal with the storage of personal data for access. Lastly, SAIC’s Information Security (INFOSEC) could be applied to the design concept of the new screening system, because it deals with information security and offers a detailed pragmatic approach of process analysis and implementation (Airport Security).

3. How is the government going to issue everyone a fingerprint?

A possible solution would be for the government to require individuals receiving identification cards to have their fingerprint taken.  In addition, anyone who already has forms of identification, but without the new fingerprint label, would then be required to make the update by a specific date.  This would allow the government to access everyone’s fingerprints and identification information from the database system, that would connect individuals’ information to their fingerprints at any given time.

4. What type of fingerprinting would airports take?

There are three distinct types of fingerprint impressions that can be recovered for identification purposes, which are: patent prints, plastic prints and latent prints (Fingerprints, 2009).  Patent prints are visible prints that occur when a foreign substance on the skin of a finger comes into contact with the smooth surface of another object (Fingerprints).  The foreign substances contain dust particles, which stick to the ridges of the fingers and are easily identifiable when left on an object.  Plastic prints are visible, impressed prints that occur when a finger touches a soft, malleable surface resulting in an indentation (Fingerprints).  These prints are easily observable and require no enhancement in order to be viewed.  Lastly, latent prints, are fingerprint impressions secreted in a surface or an object and are usually invisible to the naked eye (Fingerprints).  These fingerprints require enhancement in order to be viewed because they serve as a means of identifying the source of the print.

Latent prints have been proven to be extremely valuable when applied to the identification of their sources.  Therefore, because latent prints seem to be highly affective and also are harder to for people to visually see or change, this form of finger printing would best fit with the proposed screening process. Only issue with this type of fingerprinting would be that airports would have to add to their annual security budget for enhancement devices that can scan such prints.  Otherwise, if the budget becomes an issue, plastic prints would be an alternative option, because they are easily visible and easy to scan for, yet they might arise more security issues in regards to people being able to alter their prints.  The decision for which type of prints would be of primary use, would be based upon government and TSA annual budget availability.


Implicated Human Value: Freedom from Bias

An implicated human value to the new fingerprinting screening process would be “Freedom from Bias”.  According to Freidman and Kahns’ “Human Values, Ethics and Design” article, Blas refers to systematic unfairness for individuals in three forms of bias, which are: preexisting social bias, technical bias and emergent social bias.  For the new screening process, travelers will be able to be free from the present airport security biases that Blas points out within the article.


Direct Stakeholders

Passengers/ Travelers:

The people who travel are the most directly involved, because they are the ones that would need to go through the new security screening process and have their fingerprints taken.


  • It would help decrease long lines at security checkpoints for travelers
  • There would be a decrease in harassment from TSA administrators
  • Travelers would not have to worry about losing boarding passes once they are cleared from the security checkpoint. 

Airport worker/ Airline ticket agents/ TSA employees:

The people who work at the airport would also be directly involved, because they would have to be trained to issue and identify scanned fingerprints. In some cases the airport employees could also be considered as indirect stakeholders.


  • Each of these groups would be able to still keep their jobs but would not have to deal with having to stress or be intense during the security and ticketing processes. 
  • Overall it would be a decrease in workload and worry for them.

Indirect Stakeholders


The government would be indirectly affected because they would have to keep the database updated and make the information available to airports, but would not have to be apart of the actual screening process.  The government also would have to issue out fingerprints to be taken by individuals when receiving an Identification card.  In some cases, the government could also be a direct stakeholder.

Works Cited

Airport Security. SAIC. 20, October 2009.

“Fingerprints”. 20, October 2009


Friedman, B., Kahn, P. H., Jr., & Borning, A. “Value Sensitive Design and information systems.” In P. Zhang & D. Galletta (eds.), Human-Computer Interaction in Management Information Systems: Foundations, (348-372). Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 2006.

Poole Jr., Robert W. and Carafano, James.  Time to Rethink Airport Security. 26, July 2006.


“Security Screening”. Transportation Security Administration. U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 20, October 2009.


U.S. Government Accountability Office, Aviation Security: Screener Training and Performance Measurement Strengthened, But More Work Remains, GAO–05–457, May 2005.

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Wald, Mathew L., “U.S. ‘Reshaping’ Airport Screening System”. The New York Times. 16, July 2004.


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