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How Eye Scans Could Be the Future of Airport Security

Mar 11, 2017

The airport of the future sounds like a godsend. Instead of a series of stress-inducing lines, ­travelers will glide from bag drop to security to the gate without even a boarding pass. Meanwhile, airports will have new opportunities to redesign terminal shops, restaurants, and lounges.

This rosy picture is the ­vision of Tascent, a company based in Los Gatos, ­Calif., that makes current generation iris-­recognition machines. Tascent says its technology can identify travelers via iris scans in two seconds with over 99% accuracy.

For travelers, the experience involves walking by a two-foot tall module that lights up with a white check mark, indicating if they’re allowed to enter a given area. For an airport, iris recognition can replace the time-consuming process of matching an individual to documents, like a boarding pass or passport.

“As opposed to this being just a security solution, this is about convenience, personalization, and efficiency,” says Joey Pritikin, vice president of marketing and product management at Tascent, adding that iris recognition is faster and more accurate than other biometric technologies, such as fingerprints or voice recognition.

Pritikin envisions a system in which travelers can move around an airport using their eyes as authentication tools to confirm seats on a flight, enter a private airline lounge, and even clear immigration. The Tascent machines also include facial recognition capacity, which could allow governments to combine iris-scanning data with passport pictures on file.

To allay privacy concerns, the systems can be built as opt-in. That means a traveler would have to give permission for an airline or security service to access eye scans. The company also encrypts identification data and has built other tricks into its system to thwart both potential hackers and impersonators.

So far only a few of the pieces are in place. While airports in London and Dubai are using Tascent’s tools, it is only for certain screening activities—not the all-access experience the company envisions. Singapore is also using Tascent’s iris-scanning machines in its passport office.

In North America, Pritikin says such integration is probably at least two years away given what he calls the “complex environment” for security. But the seeds are being sown as another iris-scanning company, Clear, is currently providing expedited security services in more than 20 American airports. A private company which is authorized by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to operate in airports, Clear uses eye scanning, among other methods, to move passengers to the front of security lines, where they are still subjected to the usual rigmarole of removing shoes and laptops—unless they are also enrolled in the TSA PreCheck program.

Airports can produce some ­awful experiences for travelers. But more technology is arriving, offering the hope to transform them from cattle pens into something more like super-secure coffee shops.

A version of this article appears in the March 15, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline "Blink of an Eye." It has been amended to clarify Clear is authorized by TSA.

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