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New tricks with biometrics

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LONDON, England (CNN) -- By using fingerprint-scanning SAS think they have put their finger on solving the problem of rogue bags getting onto planes and causing security alerts. But some think biometric systems might not have all the answers.

The trial by SAS at the regional Lulea Airport in Sweden is set to last for a few weeks and if successful will be rolled out to all airports in Sweden, Norway and Denmark later this autumn.

The fingerprint-based system matches passengers to their bags at check-in. Their index finger scan is then stored in SAS's passenger register, matching it to the details on the baggage tag.

A second live fingerprint scan is carried out at the departure gate, ensuring that the person who checked in the baggage is the same person who boards the aircraft.

"A person's privacy is maintained as we only store the information for as long as it take the passenger to get from check-in to the boarding gate," said Peter Söderlund, vice president of Project Concepts at SAS.

In this instance all information is automatically erased when the customer completes the journey. But data protection issues are of limited importance to the frequent flyer.

That is the opinion of Duncan Alexander of OAG. It's an opinion born out by the ready acceptance by business travellers to exchange personal details for faster travel at the limited places where biometric systems are being used.

Frequent flyers with British Airways from JFK to Heathrow can obtain a card that holds retinal scans and fingerprint images allowing them access to a special fast-track security lane. A similar system called Privium operates in Amsterdam's Schiphol.

Over 30,000 passengers have signed up to it, paying for membership - their personal details stored on a government-connected database in exchange for quicker transit times.

As well as security issues, biometric systems are in part an extension of airlines and airports' desire to smooth the passenger's experience.

However thoughts of a brave new world of automated check-ins and security procedures have been rattled by last month's security measures and hand luggage restrictions.

"It's clear that after last month's interim security measures no amount of high-end investment will solve low-tech problems," said Alexander.

"There's not a great deal of point in having access to streamlined fast-track procedures if you then have to join a huge queue and check-in you hand luggage."

A further problem for the extension of biometric systems is the lack of an international consensus.

"As well as being careful to find a system that works unfailingly, be it fingerprints or eye scans, the main factor holding back airlines from introducing more biometric systems is the lack of integration, " a spokesperson for British Airways told CNN.

While international aviation authorities have been talking about the issue for years, no agreement is in sight, in part because the technology is still being tested.

New airports and terminals still view biometric systems as a large part of the future. Heathrow's Terminal 5 has been testing a number of systems.

One is an iris scan designed to speed up check-in, the other a facial recognition scheme to allow domestic and international passengers to use the same facilities, something that is currently not allowed in the UK. The idea is that it will ensure boarding cards cannot be switched.

"These systems are not being developed to replace the current physical security checks, merely to augment them and provide a faster and less stressful experience for passengers," Antonia Kimberly of Heathrow T5 told CNN.

"Airports need to plan for contingency situations as much as invest in technology. Otherwise it could be that T5 and other new airports are wasting their money on expensive biometric systems," said Alexander.

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Iris scans and fingerprinting will become more common, but biometric systems might not solve all security issues

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