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Delta Air Lines tries letting passengers use fingerprints as boarding passes

Where’s your boarding pass? Forget it. Delta Air Lines is letting some passengers board planes with just their fingerprints.

Delta announced this week that travelers who are members of its SkyMiles loyalty program and enrolled in Clear, a third-party biometric screening program, can choose to use their fingerprints as proof of identity at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.

Later this summer, Delta plans to let members also use their fingerprints to check bags at that airport.

The fingerprint pilot program at the Washington airport will test how Delta’s and Clear’s systems work together, Delta said. The program is optional for Delta customers.

Gil West, Delta’s chief operating officer, said customer and employee feedback on the program has been positive.

“Biometric verification has a higher level of accuracy than paper boarding passes and gives agents more time to assist customers with seat changes and other skilled tasks instead of having to scan individual tickets,” West said in a statement, “and customers have less to keep track of as they travel through the airport.”

He said that once testing is complete, fingerprint scanning could roll out to Delta terminals nationwide “in a matter of months.”

Delta is only the latest airline to announce a biometrics project.

Last month, JetBlue Airways announced that it would begin using facial recognition technology on flights from Logan International Airport in Boston to Beatrix International Airport in Aruba.

In 2014, Alaska Airlines began using fingerprint scans to verify customers at six of its airport lounges, including one at Los Angeles International Airport. In 2015, the airline launched a pilot program in Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport to use fingerprints instead of boarding passes and government-issued identification to identify passengers as they drop off their bags, pass through the security checkpoint and board planes.

Paul Viollis, chief executive of security firm Viollis Group International, said one reason that airlines are adopting biometric technology is that it’s almost impossible to duplicate, say, a retina scan.

“Biometric … is not going to lie,” Viollis said. “But you may have false reads that could back people up in line, and not all biometric manufacturers are equal. If you spend the money and do it right, you will have improved security and reduced wait times.”

Still, the introduction of fingerprint scans isn’t without risk. Computers that store personal information about Delta’s customers, including fingerprints, could be hacked. And unlike a stolen password that can be changed, a fingerprint is indelible.

“With a password, you can just change it and move on with your life. You can’t do that with fingerprints,” said Nasir Memon, a professor of computer science at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering.

Memon said fingerprints can be easily obtained and copied simply by lifting them off objects that people have touched, which is why it’s crucial that Delta staff man the scanners at airport gates to ensure that a passenger isn’t posing as someone else.

Memon said it’s too soon to know how much damage a mass hack of fingerprints would cause; the technology hasn’t been adopted widely enough. There is precedent, however. In 2014, a hacker cloned the thumbprint of German defense minister Ursula von der Leyen using a close-up photo.

Clear, the technology firm partnering with Delta to administer the fingerprinting system, said it has strict security measures to thwart hacks but declined to describe them in detail.

“The integrity of our customers’ data is the integrity of our company,” David Cohen, the firm’s chief administrative officer, said in an emailed statement. “Protecting our members' privacy is our most important priority. For that reason, we do not discuss the security measures we have put in place. Clear also never rents or sells member data.”

rachel.spacek@latimes.com

david.pierson@latimes.com

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