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Bladerunner and biometrics: Heathrow T5 unveiled

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In an otherwise bleak time for Londoners, with foreign talent leaving the City in droves on account of the decreasingly favourable tax regime, Terminal 5 beams a ray of hope into our economy.

"It's all about transfer flights," a BAA guide informed me. "People have a choice about which airport to stop over in on their way to other destinations. We want them to pick London."

Therein lies the answer to our economic difficulties. While we might not be able to persuade rich foreign humans to move here, the more of them we can get into the departure lounge at Heathrow, the better.

The fabric of the building is woven with screens capable of morphing in the bat of an eyelid from information display boards to lucrative adverts. The lounge's showcase shops, cafes and restaurants provide visitors with a "wealth of delights" for those awaiting flights to feast on. And there's a small chance, with the turrets of Windsor Castle poking out of the distance through the floor-to-ceiling windows onto the outside world, that some foreign travellers might be tempted to find out more about their host.

Stitched up

That's also what we have to be careful of. And we are. The lack of physical segregation between domestic and international travellers (all will be equally free to consume at lengthy leisure) means there is a danger of those destined for foreign lands trying to sneak onto flights to exotic British destinations. Everyone knows how easy it is to pinch a facially similar passenger's boarding ticket and jump on a different flight these days. The building needs to be able to spot these impostors. That's why it takes fingerprints from those travelling around Britain. Any passengers attempting to jump on a flight to Aberdeen with an airline ticket to Bangkok will get snubbed by the gate. Or possibly worse.

Civil liberties campaigners worry that bio-data hungry police and security hawks will peck at this digital cache of biometric information, but BAA assured me that the building will wipe each passenger's details from its mind within 24 hours, and BAA doesn't anticipate receiving any access requests within that time period. No doubt the existence of this biometric verification structure and the likely acclimatisation of UK citizens to biometric checks will provide temporary reassurance to police officers. It might also explain the relative hostility shown by the police to budget airlines, who in Chief Constable Hogan-Howe's view, permit people to flee the country before the police have had an opportunity to accumulate sufficient evidence "to charge they are safe". The Home Office also approves of BAA's biometric advance.

But now the Information Commissioner has thrown a spanner in the works by urging passengers to only provide their prints "under protest". The Information Commissioner isn't satisfied that BAA has shown sufficient reason for requiring fingerprints. Doesn't the Information Commissioner realise that Britain has a reputation to protect? We are the Surveillance Society, and Terminal 5 is a "flagship of what the UK can do". If we can prove to the rest of the world that we are willing to provide our fingerprints without fuss, just think how many surveillance companies will invest in us! And how does the Information Commissioner expect Terminal 5 to deal with principled objections? It's been taught to treat human beings "like human beings", not dissenters.

Tomorrow the passengers arrive, we'll finally get to see how good Terminal 5 really is at communicating with, and controlling, a huge influx of human beings. ®

Amber Marks is a criminal lawyer and freelance writer. She is presently undertaking doctoral research into new surveillance technologies at King's College, London.

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