TSA to test encrypted flight boarding passes

The Transportation Security Administration plans to test a new anti-terrorist measure at airports: encrypted bar codes on boarding passes.

Tests could begin at a few airports this year. A Jan. 27 notice said the TSA may buy 2,300 boarding-pass scanners — equal to one for each airport checkpoint in the U.S.

Depending on how the test goes, the agency will decide whether to require every airline to issue the new passes, aimed at preventing terrorists from forging their own boarding papers.

TSA screeners at the test airports would check passes with handheld scanners at airport checkpoints instead of simply matching the name on a boarding pass to a passenger's ID, agency spokesman Christopher White said.

Security experts have warned that terrorists could make a forged boarding pass on a home computer to get through a checkpoint.

"Any moron with a printer could do it," security analyst Bruce Schneier said. "Encryption will solve that problem."

A 2007 TSA report says "the vulnerabilities associated with fake boarding passes are well known." It noted an Indiana University student in 2006 set up a website to prove it could be done. Encryption in a boarding-pass bar code would make forgeries easy to spot, White said.

Technology for encrypted bar codes is being used commercially, TSA acting technology chief Robin Kane said.

The wide use of scanners could allow travelers to use electronic boarding passes that are e-mailed to a cellphone or personal-digital assistant and are read with a scanner without being printed. "This would give the green light to all airlines operating in the U.S. to move ahead with paperless mobile boarding passes," Steve Lott of the International Air Transport Association said.

In a separate test, the TSA is using scanners to read digital boarding passes at 13 airports. "It makes it simpler for the customer," said Mary Clark of Continental Airlines, whose passengers can use the scanners at eight airports.