Going up in the world

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I’m writing this post from 33,000 feet in the air, about half of the way into a flight from London Heathrow to Seattle. My watch (still on London time) says it’s 10pm – the clock on my computer (Seattle time),2pm. So part of me is telling me that I should be getting on with work, whilst part of me tells me that it’s 10pm and that I can justifiably kick back and relax. So I’m satisfying both voices (to an extent) by engaging in that most satisfying noodling-around-masquerading-as-work activity, blogging.

In the wake of this week’s scares about security (particularly on planes flying from the UK to the US), I thought I’d add my thoughts to the million or so other bloggers who’ve done the same. Maybe I’m the first to do it from mid-air, though, because today’s the first day since the crisis began when laptops have been allowed back on planes.

So how did I get on, literally and figuratively? Pretty well, up until I got on the plane: I dropped my bag off within about 10 minutes (thanks to BA’s online check-in service), and was through security within about another 20 (oddly, they’re searching every other passenger; I guess maybe they’re hoping the terrorists travel in pairs). 

So I bought some lunch, had a coffee, did a little work, suddenly realised the flight was boarding and dashed to the gate, got on the plane (after being frisked a second time) and found my seat. This has been pretty efficient, I thought. My flight should leave more or less on time.

But then the fun started. One thing that’s not been on the news (or not that I’ve noticed) is that every flight departing for the US has to get its entire passenger list vetted by the US authorities before it can take off. Our captain assured us that this would take no more than an hour and a half. In the event, it took about two and a half hours. By the time we took off I had almost lost the will to live.

Apparently the cause of our delay was that it took quite a long time to check some of the passengers’ backgrounds, which implies a reasonably detailed level of data being retrieved (given the speed of data access these days). If I were making a movie of this process, I’d have a computer screen with a big list of the passengers’ names in red, slowly turning green as each passenger’s background checks out (there’d probably be a big, fast-moving animation on the screen, perhaps of hundreds of faces on passport photos, to illustrate that some serious data retrieval was going on in the background). The ones left at the end would be the troublemakers. The really bad ones would start flashing, or something, and then I’d cut back to the plane itself with the worried-looking crew staring at a little map of the plan on a PDA, with certain seats flashing red, and then to the occupants of those seats, looking nervous…

Anyway, I’m getting carried away. The serious point I was going to make was that this process is a sort of certification process. The computer pulls enough information from the back-end databases to decide that passenger A is green, whilst passenger B is red (or even – horror – flashing red). The data comes from trusted sources, so put together it’s a bit like a certificate. So what if there was the option to have your identity ‘certified’?

I’ll explain what I mean. Ahead of travelling, you submit a bunch of information about yourself to the authorities (name, address, social security details, employer, bank details, etc). They go through this info and ‘certify’ your identity (based upon your passport number) as being trustworthy. In return, you get an easy ride through security, and your identity takes less time to check out when you’re waiting on a plane on the tarmac.

The process would be a lot like having your web server’s SSL certificate certified – the certificate is electronically signed by a trusted third-party (e.g. VeriSign, the trusty organisation that brings us the Crazy Frog) and, on that basis, your browser decides – quickly – that it can trust the server itself.

So if background checks are going to become a regular feature of air travel, it would speed things up if regular travellers in particular could certify their identity so that their background checks came out really quickly. You would have to agree to the certification process having access to a range of data which it might not even have access to now (e.g. bank data), and there would need to be a robust certificate revocation process (in case someone with a previously blameless record falls into a life of crime), but it could at least allow people to take a proactive approach to improving their security experience whilst flying. You could have fast-track security – and even dedicated flights themselves – for certified individuals. This would at least avoid the controversy surrounding existing proposals for targeted security, which (as one commentator put it succinctly) run the risk of introducing a new crime of ‘flying whilst Muslim’.

There are all sorts of horrible privacy implications (though a well-designed certificate system should be able to mitigate some of these), and now I’ve written this little thesis, I’m not sure I agree with it or would sign up for it, but it’s certainly an interesting idea (well, I think so). What do you think?

2 thoughts on “Going up in the world”

  1. We’re obsessed with who people are yet we don’t have much idea of what they’re going to do next. The 9/11 terrorists were all in the country legally, after all. I’m tickled pink by the idea that, by mooching off my neighbour’s open wireless access point (as you do…), I’m wrecking his identity.
    Good luck in the States. I was in New York for two years and ‘divided by common language’ doesn’t even begin to describe the profound differences between our countries.

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