ThinkingShift is back!

August 9, 2008 at 12:36 am Leave a comment

Well, I’m back in Oz and suffering from pretty major jet lag. Any flight over 5 hours tends to knock me out so here I am at 6.15am Saturday morning blogging away. Five weeks away in Europe and I was 50/50 about coming back home. I really loved Italy and Portugal is such a great country too. All a bit too hot for me though so very glad to be back in the colder weather. For my kick-off post, let me tell you about a major hissy fit I nearly had (next post will reveal the airline I consider to be a shocker).

My husband booked our tickets and he knows I refuse to go to the US because of biometric identification at their airports. So he is always vigilant in avoiding any transit through the US. Unfortunately, he forgot about the UK and I wasn’t aware we were coming home via Heathrow until we left Portugal. So here I was on the plane, hurtling towards London having all sorts of visions of me being hauled off by UK immigration because I was going to refuse any form of biometric identification.

So we get to Heathrow and spend the night at an airport hotel. Next morning, check-in with British Airways at the new Terminal 5 and we’re told to go through “security”. I took this to mean immigration but oh no dear reader! Security is something George Orwell would have nightmares about! First though let me say that Terminal 5 from an architectural POV is interesting. As you approach it, its raked steel columns really give the structure coherence. It’s quite impressive. But inside Terminal 5? …ho hum, same old concept. Huge departure halls full of The Brands, with weary passengers walking aimlessly up and down trying to stretch legs. The presence of so many Brands (Links of London, Prada, Tiffany’s and so on) presenting their wares in so many eye-catching shops is enough to do your head in! But I avoided them all. Not a single Brand name item have I bought since I declared myself to be “anti-brand”.

But I digress. So off we trot to “security”. We enter a smallish hallway and there were about 4 desks with passengers lining up. And towering above each desk was….biometric equipment. What really stood out for me was the iris scanning device. I wanted to take a photo to show you but thought better of it. The iris scanner looms up above the security desk on a black arm. At the desk itself is other equipment, presumably fingerprint scanners and cameras. All the equipment is black, imposing and intimidating. I had about 5 other victims, sorry passengers, ahead of me, so I quickly looked around for some signage that would tell me of my rights to refuse biometric identification.

Near one of the desks was a small sign that I rushed up to. I only caught a glimpse of what it said before being told to get back in queue by some gruff security person. All I saw was the phrase “if you refuse, you will be denied…” – didn’t get to read what you’d be denied but guess it would be boarding the aircraft to escape the hell out of the UK!

So I armed myself with various legal arguments that I knew would be ignored. I was practically hyperventilating and had images of me languishing in some UK jail, wishing I’d brought along the contact details for Privacy International! I approached the desk. A pretty stern looking woman, in her 50s, took my boarding pass and passport. I was ready for the next bit – “okay we’re going to do an iris scan and fingerprint you, you will obey”. But no…I was ushered through without a word said to me. I slunk off fast believe me! Then it was the irritating x-ray business. As always, I set off the alert system so I was asked to step aside. What happened next was truly THE most intrusive body search I’ve yet suffered through.

A security person decided my shoes, which had some metal decoration on them, was probably the culprit but said I would still have to be searched ie frisked. He sent me to a woman who I reckon was a former prison guard the way she acted. Every possible part of my person was patted down and I had to show the soles of my feet. Say what I asked? Yep, show them. I was delighted to show her the nastiest pair of soles she’s probably seen in some time – after one month of schlepping the streets of Continental Europe, I was in bad need of a pedicure and foot scrub! I asked her why she needed to see the bottom of my feet. Her reply? “You never know”. Know what I asked? Do you think I have a bomb on my soles? All I got was a very rude stare.

I then slunk off into the supermall for shoppers – the Departure Lounge. I’ve done some quick research into Terminal 5 and the UK biometric system. What I can’t understand is the stupidity of it. Apparently, the biometric system is in place because Terminal 5’s Departure Lounge allows Domestic and International passengers to mingle. So authorities fear that a terrorist, who is an incoming international passenger, could swap tickets with an accomplice booked on a domestic flight. So the biometrics are in place at security and identities are rechecked at departure gates. Hello? Dudes…why have common departure lounges?? Why not separate incoming and outgoing passengers and ditch the imposing biometric equipment that strips any passenger of rights? Speaking of passenger rights: I do wonder if the taking of fingerprints and iris scanning runs counter to the UK Data Protection Act. I have no answer right now but will be looking into it. I simply can’t believe that passengers have no rights to refuse biometrics. And before I hand over my fingerprints or iris scan, I want to know that the UK for example is not going to share my personal information with the US.

Further snooping has revealed something else I want to look into. Apparently, Heathrow Airport and its biometric system is operated by BAA, a Spanish construction company. That’s right: Heathrow is owned by the Spanish who invested £252million in Heathrow and one would suggest would like to recoup some profits. How to boost profits? Well, BAA also owns a chain of Duty Free stores, which by sheer coincidence happen to be at Heathrow and Terminal 5. So if you mingle domestic and international passengers in one huge Departure lounge like Terminal 5, you maximise profits because said passengers spend time shopping.

Even better: you then introduce biometric identification systems, using the excuse that there’s a huge security risk having domestic and international passengers heaped together. BAA’s website says:

We are transforming Heathrow to make big improvements for all passengers.Domestic passengers will in future use the same departure lounges as international passengers. That means all our passengers will enjoy the same wide choice of shops and restaurants.”

The cynics amongst us might suggest that BAA is more interested in raking in the cash than it is in safeguarding passengers against supposed terrorist threats. I may not have all this correct yet as I’ve only started looking into it. I was so shocked by what I saw at Terminal 5 ie the biometric equipment, that I wanted to look into it. If you know more, then leave a comment.

It’s more than profits though. It’s about control over you and me in the name of keeping us safe. The majority of us are happy to be shunted through queues having our irises scanned, our photos snapped and our fingerprints taken in the name of perceived security. I, however, am not. Thankfully, I escaped the UK and will never again make the mistake of passing through Heathrow. But seems the world is getting smaller and smaller for me as you face biometrics in the UK, the US, Japan and soon Australia. Antarctica is looking good!

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Entry filed under: Airport security, Biometric identification, Privacy, Surveillance society.

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