Airport and Border Security

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Group 1, L01, T05


Group Members

  • Meagan Bell
  • Kelsi Fraser
  • Radelya Mousaev
  • Nathan Voisey

Project Statement

With the occurrence of 9/11 the United States and many other nations have been searching for new ways to protect their borders, and ultimately prevent a recurrence of the event. Many nation states have been actively pursuing the issue beyond using traditional methods such as the passport and driver’s license; rather, many are experimenting with RFID chips, biometric technologies and Terahertz Radiation. These new forms of technology are increasingly surfacing as border security methods, and are a volatile topic for the issues of personal privacy, effectiveness, expense and a unified international response to increased global security threats.

RFID Chips

What are RFID Chips?


RFID which stands for Radio Frequency Identification chips are small chips with antennas which are capable of holding information. They function similar to a barcode on a package, and therefore must be scanned to obtain information. However, the RFID chips do not need to be close to the scanner. RFID chips with higher frequencies can be read from 20 feet. [1]

How Do They Work?

In order for Radio Frequency Identification Chips to function, three elements must be in existance.

  • A scanning antenna
  • A transceiver with a decorder to interpret data
  • A transponder or RFID Chip

Once these 3 elements are in place the system can be used. In the first phase the scanning antenna puts out radio frequency signals, which contain radio frequency radiation, and are relatively short range signals. The radio frequency radiation is used for two purposes: as a means of communicating with the RFID chip, and second to provide an energy source for passive RFID chips.

  • There are two kinds of RFID Chips, active and passive. Active chips have their own power source such as a battery, and can be sensed from a longer distance while passive RFID Chips rely on the radio frequency radiation to provide their power/energy source.

When an RFID Chip comes within the range of the signals emitted by the scanning antenna, it detects the activiation signal from the antenna. The activation signal allows the chip to trasmit infro contained on it, which is the picked up by the scanning antenna.

Finally the data is interpreted and decoded by the transceiver, which makes it ledgible and understandable by humans.[2]

RFID Chips in Airport and Border Security

Enhanced Drivers Licenses

Although RFID chips have been around for quite some time, there use has become more popular as the cost associated with these chips has decreased. Government agencies such as drivers licensing bureaus are now implementing RFID chips into licenses, with individual’s personal information, and sometimes even photos. These new licenses are currently being offered in BC and Ontario, and can be used instead of a passport at all land border crossings between Canada and the United States. According to an article in the Vancouver Sun “Canadian provinces and U.S. states are working toward the creation of enhanced driver's licenses as a passport alternative. They are to include radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips embedded with citizenship and identity information”. [3]


According the US State Department, "The U.S. Electronic Passport (e-passport) is the same as a regular passport with the addition of a small contactless integrated circuit (computer chip) embedded in the back cover. The chip securely stores the same data visually displayed on the photo page of the passport, and additionally includes a digital photograph. The inclusion of the digital photograph enables biometric comparison, through the use of facial recognition technology, at international borders. The U.S. e-passport also has a new look, incorporating additional anti-fraud and security features." [4]

  • The computer chip spoken of above is a RFID Chip

Biometric Technologies

What are Biometric Technologies?

According to the Department of Homeland Security, biometric technology is "a measurable, physical characteristic or personal behavioral trait used to recognize the identity or verify the claimed identity [of a person]."[5] Biometric technology is based on a number of different physiological characteristics such as fingerprints, iris characteristics, retinal scanning, hand geometry, voice prints and facial features. The following are the traits which can be scanned as a biometric technology and were all found at the CBC: [6]



These are the most frequently used biometric technology, and measure the unique swirls on a person’s fingertip. Some issues found with this method are the inability to read some scars on fingers and the “false rejection” which may occur if a finger is oily or placed improperly on the scanner. In many places such as California and Spain, fingerprint scans are used to give out and prevent the fraud of welfare, pensions and unemployment claims as well as for social security cards.

Hand and Palm Geometry


These scans identify the “topography” and a hand by analyzing creases in the palm, however it can be very inaccurate. Newer versions measure veins and fatty tissues to increase accuracy. In American prisons, hand scans are used to track prisoners within, as well as staff members and guests.



Iris scans analyze the patterns of the iris and are the most accurate biometric technology, as “the technology reads 266 different characteristics…and the iris doesn't change from the time you're one year old.” The technology, additionally, is portable and can hold millions of scans. It is often used with security doors and is being tested in airport security for checking in passengers and for airport staff movement.


Retinal scans capture the patterns of veins in the retina with an infrared laser and has about the same accuracy as fingerprints. Since the retina changes with age and potential diseases, it is not highly reliable and the technology requires a skilled operator.


This technology records the dips and heights of the face with a digital camera with precise lighting and alignment. It has been used frequently in casinos since the 1990s.


A “voice template” is constructed by repeating certain phrases and recording them, in order to compare the behavior of the person when speaking the phrase rather than pitch. This is the most inaccurate biometric technology as the voice is “susceptible to sickness, drugs and emotions.”

Biometric Technologies in Airport and Border Security

Initially, biometric technologies were used for airport employees for security purposes and to ease the flow of personnel. Smart Cards with biometric information coded onto them and fingerprint and iris scans are used in employee zones. Security after September 11 is the key drive pushing biometric technology into airports and towards passengers; however, the convenience which they can provide is becoming all the more appealing.[7]

Currently, airports are using biometrics on a volunteer basis and at the cost of the passenger, as many are not yet comfortable with the technology. As such, airports are catering towards frequent-fliers whose time is valuable, and have asked them in places such as the US and the UK to volunteer for the biometrics program. Airports will issue e-passports and Smart Cards which will have “biometric data encrypted on RFID chips,” at the cost of around $100 per traveler.[8] These can potentially replace most other forms of identification. The International Air Travel Association (IATA) has the goal for a smooth and unified process of airport security which could be implemented internationally. Once registered in the biometric system, the program is supposed to increase the pace of boarding airplanes and make it more efficient. Initially, a passenger will check-in at a self-service station, where they will provide identification such as their e-passport, then the passenger will verify their identity using technologies such as face recognition, fingerprints or iris scans in order to receive a boarding pass. At security checks, the process is sped up with the efficient identity verification, as is boarding made faster.[9]

Biometric technologies, however, are not simply used for efficiency of passenger travel; rather they are intended to be used for security in airline travel and border crossing. The Department of Homeland Security also wishes to “promote a centralized source for biometric-based information on criminals, immigration violators, and known or suspected terrorists,”[10] which can be checked at security check points. As well, biometric technologies may decrease the capability for fraudulent identity papers in airline travel.

Terahertz Radiation

What Are T-Rays?

The new and innovative technology based on the terahertz (THz) frequency band is just now beginning to show us the full power it has to offer. The THz band has been known to exist for quite some time, however it wasn't until the 1980's when scientists really began to play with it. In the late 1990's, a number of scientists discovered meta-materials, specifically mixed elements that interplay amazingly well with t-rays. Thusly, with this new material, scientists are able to explore on of the last untouched frontiers of the electromagnetic radiation.


T-rays, or terahertz radiation, is a band of energy frequency between the infrared and microwave parts of the spectrum. In wavelength terms, they exist between 1millimeter and 100 micrometers. In lay terms, between roughly the size of a paperclip and just thinner than a piece of paper.[11] T-rays are non-ionizing, so they can pass through most materials including masonry, plastic, ceramics, wood and clothing.[12] It cannot pass through metal and water. Until the 1990's, the technology was not at a sufficient level to be able to engage this energy frequency.

What Can They Do?

T-rays currently have five main opportunities that are being pursued by industry and governments. The broad categories are security, scientific studies and communications.[13] Each of these areas are still in their infancy, though breakthroughs are occurring every few years.

The security and surveillance industry, coupled with t-ray technology, would be greatly enhanced. Terahertz radiation is based on the ability of t-rays to pass through items and show their unique “fingerprints”. (Grant, 36) Almost all organic and inorganic compounds and molecules seem to have their own individual spectral “fingerprint”, which allows for a categorization and analysis of any item being scanned. This enables any scanner the ability to detect specific items by their unique fingerprint.

The fields of science, especially chemistry and biochemistry would be greatly boosted with t-ray technology. The unique fingerprint of chemicals and compounds would allow for spectroscopy to become much more accurate. Moreover, the understanding of the cosmos within the terahertz field is quite limited. This area would become a great asset to understand all cosmic activity. The composition of foreign planets, stars, nebulas and such would be detectable, providing a wealth of information about our universe. (Grant, 38)

The communications field would provide a boost in certain fields with t-ray enhanced technology. Because Earth is a strong terahertz absorber and water vapour is commonplace in our atmosphere, t-ray communication technology would only be efficient at high altitudes.[14] Any satellite to satellite or aviation communication would benefit. Anything communication closer to Earth's crust would begin to break down quickly.

Airport Security

In regards to border security and personal privacy, t-rays allow for nations and their governments to scan humans entering their nation in new ways. This is a dual-edged sword. The preservation of a peaceful nation is now more enhanced, but the costs are high. To be scanned at a molecular level is daunting. Everything you do leaves a chemical trace in your body which takes time for your body to get rid of. This technology could scan that activity you did, that was perhaps legal in one country, and then after you cross the border and get scanned, you're arrested for that same activity. Also, the your “fingerprint” can now be left anywhere you have been. A piece of your hair or a toe-nail and you can be traced. As with x-rays, anything you wear can be seen under.

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This advantage t-rays have over other technologies is that it's non-ionizing. This means that it doesn't knock electrons off atoms when its energy is pumped through organic materials.[15] This ability reduces health risk while increasing the ability to scan more objects. For those that have gone through airport security, this means that any metal or containers will not have to be removed by the traveller. Much more convenient for all travellers for sure. However, this also signifies that this technology can be used more widely without any detrimental effects.[16] The health risk that limited other ionizing technologies no longer exists, permitting any government or corporation to use the technology to scan their employees, travellers or possibly random people more readily.


In conclusion, the terahertz radiation frequency band is a possible double-edged sword. It provides great assistance to the medical and communication fields, with its touch already being felt, only fifteen years into its true induction into mainstream industry. The flip side though, will provide governments and corporations a new technology to surveil employees, travellers and even random people. As with all technology, it is the beholder that provides the moral and ethical limitations to which the technology will be used for. And as history so well shows, all technology is used for both good and evil. Let us hope this energy frequency band and its relevant technology will be different.

Issues with Border Security Technologies

A number of issues arise from the uses of these technologies. A major public concern of biometric technology is its potential to be used in ways untrue to its original function (as it would be obtained by private companies rather than governments). Some are concerned with how far this biometric information can be used to obtain additional personal knowledge about the individual (i.e.: religion, employment), which could be used for discrimination. Confidence in the technology is also an issue, as there is still potential for false positives and false negatives. Inaccuracy from sources such as fingerprints and retinas can be caused by physiological changes such as sweat on the hand or a cataract in the eye. Fingerprints could be hard to match from those who work with their hands, or those with scars.[17] These potential flaws can occur to about one percent of travelers according to Vijayakumar Bhagavatula, a Carnegie Mellon University professor of electrical and computer engineering. "Nothing is 100 percent unique," Bhagavatula said. "Some part of your fingerprint may match with someone else. To be completely sure these measures are unique, we would have to check the 6 billion people in the world."[18] Clearly, an attempt to do this would be very time consuming and expensive. It is also suggested that the size of such an identification system would be extremely large and currently a database of such a size does not exist, so the actuality of such a system functioning without a multitude of errors is unknown. Another issue is human error; supervision of those running the equipment is crucial but still cannot eliminate casual slip-ups. Something as minute as entering an error when putting information of suspected criminals into a database can lead to immense consequences for a completely innocent individual.

Many technical problems arise when it comes to RFID chips. Because RFID systems use the electromagnetic spectrum, disrupting the systems can be easily done by using energy at the right frequency. Interfering with the system can also be done by repetitively interrogating ‘active’ RFID tags in order to erode the battery. Another technical issue is reader collision; this is when several signals overlap and therefore the tag cannot respond. Tag collision occurs when several tags are energized and signaled back to the reader at the same time, causing confusion and making it impossible for the reader to distinguish between the signals.[19] RFID chips also bring up privacy issues. The information held in the RFID tag can be read and at a distance (in particularly with high-gain antennas). This poses concern over the fact that one’s contents can be seen by anyone. Moreover, they can be read without the individual knowing, as they don’t need to be swiped or scanned. Furthermore, one must wonder who is storing this information, as it has been suggested that private companies may be maintaining such databases. This could pose a privacy threat, as individuals not working for the government could be in control of your information, and once they’ve got your information Canada’s government is unable to enforce Canadian privacy laws and protect our citizen’s privacy.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The propositional use of any of these technologies in airport and border security and therefore citizenship identity would mean obtaining extremely personal information from individuals, which if compromised or forged, would have irreversible consequences for that individual. This is because physiological and genetic data cannot be reissued; if an individual’s data is compromised, they don’t have a backup or chance for a new identity. Additionally, for the use of these technologies in airport and border security to work effectively, a combination of each would be required for optimal security. Finally, strict adherence to the privacy of any sensitive information must be followed, through strict laws not only nationally, but internationally. A formal treaty must be signed on the required limitations and the scope of relevant information for identification which cannot abuse the privacy of individuals, yet cannot compromise the security of nations. Indeed, these technologies would be extremely efficient and secure in border security if implemented properly, so long as the rights of individuals are not sacrificed.


RFID References





Biometrics References











T-Ray References


16. /releases/2009/02/090224133152.htm




20.Grant, Andrew. “How to Make Anything Disappear.” pg. 32-39 Discover Magazine. April 2009.


Issues References