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Device Could Track Phones, PDAs In Airports

March 24, 2010

Smartphones and PDAs may soon help passengers avoid long lines at security checkpoints in many of the nation’s airports.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is looking into installing devices at airport terminals that track and detect personal electronic devices. The goal is to find out how long people are stuck in security checkpoint lines.

The findings could then be used to post information on websites and in airport bulletins around the country. “This technology will produce valuable data that can be used in a variety of ways,” TSA spokeswoman Lauren Gaches told USA Today’s Thomas Frank, noting that it could help prevent long security lines.

However, civil-liberties experts fear that such a system would allow the government to track people’s whereabouts. “It’s serious business when the government begins to get near people’s personal-communication devices,” said American Civil Liberties Union privacy expert Jay Stanley.

Researchers at Purdue University tested the technology last year at Indianapolis International Airport, but the TSA is still in the early phases of exploring the technology.

Tiny receivers located near checkpoints detect serial numbers emitted by some devices carried by passengers. The receivers record the time when the passenger enters the line, and the time when the same passenger clears the line. Purdue transportation engineer Darcy Bullock told Frank that only part of each serial number is recorded, and the numbers are quickly deleted.

Many electronic devices automatically broadcast their serial number every few seconds when they are turned on, but people can set their devices so they do not broadcast. Bullock found he could detect signals in only about 6 to 10 percent of passengers in the Indianapolis study.

Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center told Frank that even though the current system minimizes privacy concerns by only recording partial serial numbers, it is possible that could change.

Airports Council International security chief Christopher Bidwell said that information gathered by tracking devices would remove some uncertainty of air travel, “especially if that information is real-time, up-to-date and accurate.”

The TSA said that the technology is already being used in some European airports.

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