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    USA Today: Airport device follows fliers’ phones

    USA Today reports on a new passenger tracking system being tested by the Transportation Security Administration. The purpose of the system is to  estimate wait time at security checkpoints in airports. The system searches for MAC addresses of Bluetooth-enabled phones, PDAs, or computers. MAC addresses are unique identifiers. I always turn off Bluetooth because I don’t want it broadcasting and “talking” to readers that I don’t know about. (This Bluetooth-sniffing type of system was used last year in Belgium to track people at a music festival.)

    The Transportation Security Administration is looking at installing devices in airports that home in and detect personal electronic equipment. The aim is to track how long people are stuck in security lines. […]

    But civil-liberties experts worry that such a system enables 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. […]

    The TSA is in the early phases of exploring the technology, which Purdue University researchers tested for a month last year at Indianapolis International Airport. Thumbnail-size receivers near checkpoints detected serial numbers emitted by some electronic devices being carried by passengers. The receivers recorded the time when a passenger entered a security line and the time when the same passenger cleared the checkpoint, Purdue transportation engineer Darcy Bullock said. Only part of each serial number was recorded, and the numbers were quickly deleted, he said.

    Some electronic devices automatically broadcast, or “chirp,” their serial number every 15-20 seconds when they are turned on. People can set their devices so they don’t broadcast. Bullock found he could detect signals from 6% to 10% of Indianapolis passengers. “We sit there and listen, capturing the unique identifier,” Bullock said.

    Previously, “Measurements were done with time-stamped cards that screeners handed passengers as they entered and cleared a checkpoint. The TSA stopped those measurements in 2008 to focus more on security.” I can understand not wanting to divert screeners’ attentions from security. Why not have travelers pick up a high-tech bracelet or key fob from a basket left at the beginning of the security line that would “speak” to the readers as passengers made their way through the lines? The bracelet could be returned into baskets as the passengers exit security. In this way, screeners do not have to divert their attention from security because the process would not involve security personnel. It is not necessary to track the unique identifiers of travelers’ personal data devices in order to figure out wait time in security lines.

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