Heathrow Scraps Fingerprint Plan

By Joseph Straw

Just hours before the grand opening of London Heathrow Airport’s new Terminal 5, private operator BAA abandoned an unprecedented plan to fingerprint all passengers departing on flights from the building.

The longstanding plans drew late criticism from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the British government’s independent privacy watchdog. An ICO spokesperson told The Financial Times that “This sort of thing takes us further down the road to a surveillance society.”

BAA dropped the plan at the last minute to avoid a public relations disaster, but got one anyway Thursday and Friday when parking, security, and baggage check problems led to cancellation of one in five flights from the terminal.

The building is used exclusively by British Airways, which is not affiliated to the Spanish-owned BAA. While some Terminal 5 passengers may connect to international flights, the terminal is itself solely domestic, a fact that fed concerns over domestic civil liberties. The building is expected to handle 4 million passengers annually, according to the Telegraph.

To prevent ticket purchasers from handing off their tickets to connecting international passengers at the gate, major U.K. airports photograph travelers electronically at check-in. Boarding passengers are checked against those photos at the gate.

BAA pitched fingerprinting as a more reliable method of verifying passenger identity, and further pledged to destroy all electronic fingerprint data within 24 hours of a departure, but failed to placate critics.

Observers note that similar fingerprinting plans may be implemented at other U.K. airports such as London Gatwick and Manchester. Further, the country is scheduled to shift to new passports in 2012 that carry biometric data, possibly fingerprints.


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