Opinion: Alaska Air wants to use thumbprint scanners instead of airplane tickets? Thumbs down

Jennifer Lawrence
If Jennifer Lawrence’s private photos were so easily hacked, why would consumers have faith in a thumbprint-identification system for airline check-ins?
(Jordan Strauss / Jordan Strauss/Invision/Associated Press)

What could possibly go wrong?

As the backlash continues over dissemination of hacked private photos through the Snapchat app Snapsaved, which followed on the heels of an iCloud hack, Alaska Air is looking at converting its ticketing operations from the current paper and electronic scans to using travelers’ thumbprints.

According to Bloomberg, Alaska Airlines says there’s no reason to fear privacy breaches, because the system would be encrypted, and would convert thumbprints into a series of numbers. So no one would be able to lift, as it were, your thumbprint.

But as the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Bloomberg, there are significant privacy and security concerns. As fast as cybertechs create supposedly secure systems, hackers find ways to get around them. This thumbprint system converts the print to a digital sequence, but hacking the encryption code could leave the person at the other end of the thumbprint vulnerable.


So far the airline has added the system at four airports to let travelers access luxury waiting areas. To use it for the boarding process will take some time, and approval by the federal government.

Getting customer approval is another matter. With data breaches seemingly revealed every week, not to mention the persistent snooping by the National Security Agency, consumer confidence in online security is pretty shaky.

Smartphones are already moving to a variation of this, using the owner’s fingerprint to unlock phone access and to make payments via Paypal. So in many ways, the horse has probably left the barn, even though a fingerprint is as easily hacked as any other security measure. As my colleague Jon Healey pointed out, the underlying vulnerability here has less to do with Internet security - how’s that for an oxymoron? - than it does with trust. When we expect personal data loaded into the Internet to remain private, we expect too much. 

Those nervous about providing hackers - both criminals and the federal government - with ever more private information have reason to be skeptical about claims of cyber safety. And we should all think twice about willingly submitting fingerprints via electronic devices, because you know somebody somewhere is figuring out a way to retrieve them.


And when the reason to cough up the data is to save a few seconds boarding an airplane, you have to wonder where our priorities lie.

Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle.