Bladerunner and biometrics: Heathrow T5 unveiled
No bag or being knowingly under-scanned
I felt like Charlie must have done when he glimpsed gold in the Wonka Bar, as I opened my email to see that The Register wanted me to go on an exclusive guided tour of Heathrow's Terminal 5.
I'd read a lot about it in the press. It is a "building for a new age" and the public has been clamouring to get into it for years.
A team of BAA and BA executive directors accompanied a handful of journalists and me around the building. The secret to Terminal 5, they told us, is that it will treat human beings "like human beings".
That's impressive because Terminal 5 isn't a person. It's a building.
It took five years for Terminal 5 to emerge from the sewage works, enabling designers to sew advanced technology into its neural structures. The result, in the words of BA Terminal 5 Programme Head, Glenn Morgan, is an "intelligent building". Over the years the building has been programmed to understand how human beings work and how it should respond to them. It knows where vehicles, personnel, bags and travellers are and what dodgy substances look like (using top secret algorithms). Its vast array of information collection points enable it to tell passengers, BAA and BA employees what to do and where to go. The function of passenger interfaces can mutate in accordance with changing needs, and even the advertising is strategically manipulated to ensure it operates on the human mind to maximum effect.
Buried in the bowels of the terminal is an 18-kilometre network of baggage conveyor belts. The technology behind it is so impressive that Jonathan Adams, BAA Head of IT programme management and head honcho of the baggage system, is confident he can “get the bags to their destination before the people”. The baggage has undergone several tests using thousands of suitcases. (They are unable to tell us how they came by such a huge number of tattered-looking used suitcases, but they assured us this was unconnected to scores of lost baggage scandals at Heathrow's other terminals.) The principal challenge to the system's smooth operation, he has discovered, is not the software "but bag straps". With bags travelling at speeds of up to 30mph around the airport, humans are advised to stay well out of the way.
BAA ditches the old baggage
"We've had to bear in mind," one of the team explained (as if this were a fact they'd had to keep reminding each other of throughout the airport's incubation period), "that processes are used by people and we've needed to think how people work."
"Are those sofas?" I had to ask the design enthusiast whisking us through the sunlit and spacious departure lounge towards the first class area, as the other executives quietly filled us in on the technical make-up of the building's brain.
"Yes," he said, darting his eyes over at the red abstract shapes curved haphazardly around the traditional blocks of single seat rows. "We have a number of rest areas."
Beautiful to look at, but you'd be hard-pushed to lie down on any of them. Still, napping isn't really what BAA wants humans to do in the time the new security regime requires them to be in the lounge. Or, as one BAA executive put it: "This airport has cost us over £4bn - we'd like to make that money back."
Perhaps this explains why the first class lounge takes pride of place in our tour of the human interface of Terminal 5. It is a dream come true for the non-smoking hedonist of the future: personally-designed spa treatments, conference facilities, computers, champagne and diamonds. Travelling with children? The walls of the double-glazed play area are magnetised - you can wrap them in a belt with a bit of metal in it and peg them up. The building can keep an eye on them.
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.
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.