Airport Security Secrets Revealed by Boarding Pass

Dennis Faas's picture

The barcodes on airline boarding passes may look innocent. However, one security researcher says that a smartphone camera allows anyone to figure out whether or not they'll be selected for a security check.

Aviation expert John Butler recently noted, via his blog, that the information on barcodes isn't encrypted. (Source:

Although airport staff use special scanners to read the barcodes, it turns out that a camera phone can scan the barcode and the proper app can convert it to a string of codes.

You can then use the Internet to find out what these codes mean.

Pre-Check Customers Evade Some Security Hassles

Most of the codes refer to the flight details and seat reservations.

However, one code shows whether or not the passenger is eligible for something called PreCheck. This is a privilege for passengers who pay an annual fee and undergo a background security check.

PreCheck is also offered without charge as a bonus to some frequent fliers.

A PreCheck passenger is allowed to pass through security without having to remove shoes and coats. He or she may also leave laptops and liquids in their bag for the scanners.

Expert Concerned About Potential for Abuse

Butler believes this barcode system is open to abuse.

First, any frequent flier can use their smartphone to find out in advance whether they will get PreCheck. A terrorist who checked this code would have up to 24 hours notice to exploit the weaker security checks.

Second, it's also possible for a terrorist who isn't eligible for PreCheck to doctor the barcode on their boarding pass so that they may bypass security.

All it takes is a photo editing program to add the PreCheck code to the boarding pass they are issued.

Bogus Barcode Could Bypass Security

According to Butler, a doctored barcode would not be detected because the scanners used by security staff aren't connected to any passenger information system.

However, Butler admits he hasn't tested his PreCheck theory in a real-world situation.

Butler says the simple solution to this security loophole would be to encrypt the information before turning it into a barcode. If that were done, passengers (and terrorists) would not be able to make any sense of the codes on their boarding passes.

The United States' Transport Security Administration (TSA) isn't commenting on the matter. (Source:

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