UK airports to drop £9.1m eye-scanning tech

UK airports to drop £9.1m eye-scanning tech

Summary: The eye scanners, which cost £4.9m to install and £4.2m to run since being introduced in 2006, are no longer operating at Manchester and Birmingham, and will be phased out elsewhere, the UK Borders Agency has said

TOPICS: Security

Biometric eye-scanners have been dropped at Manchester and Birmingham airports, and will be phased out across the country, according to the UK Borders Agency.

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The IRIS identification system, which has cost the government £9.1m to date, will be eventually replaced by facial-recognition electronic gates (e-gates) and biometric passports, a spokesman for the agency said on Friday. The self-service iris-scanning scheme is now closed to people who have not already enrolled in it.

"We are phasing out IRIS and will be replacing it with other types of gates that non-EU passengers will be able to use," the UK Borders Agency (UKBA) said in a statement.

With the IRIS scheme, which officially launched in 2006, the agency hoped to speed up border checks for frequent travellers such as businesspeople. After registering for the scheme at Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham or Manchester airports, people could bypass the passport desk by using an eye-scanning booth.

Scanners are still in operation at Heathrow Terminals 1,3,4 and 5 and at Gatwick North, but will be phased out at these airports after the 2012 London Olympic Games, the UKBA spokesman said.

The IRIS recognition immigration system had totted up £4.9m in capital costs and £4.2m in running costs by April 2011, Conservative peer Lord Henley said in a written answer in October. The scheme is run by Morpho, which changed its name from Sagem in May 2010.

Criticism of the scheme dates back to its introduction. In 2007, Conservative MP Ben Wallace, raised doubts about its efficacy, telling the BBC that an IRIS pilot in 2005 had "failed half its assessments".

Also in 2005, Wallace asked in parliament for figures on how many times the machines failed to enrol a user, but then-Home Office minister Tony McNulty did not respond with figures. Instead, he said Sagem was contractually obliged to have failure-to-enrol rates of less than two percent.

The facial recognition e-gates that will take over from iris scanners to speed up immigration are installed in 15 airport terminals right now, according to the UKBA. The e-gates are designed to let registered non-EU visitors avoid passport checks.

However, the rollout of the e-gates has been delayed as a result of a Borders Agency investigation into the recent relaxation of biometric border checks, the British Airports Authority told the Financial Times in February. This means Heathrow may not get facial recognition at all of its terminals before the Olympics, according to the Guardian.

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Topic: Security

Tom Espiner

About Tom Espiner

Tom is a technology reporter for He covers the security beat, writing about everything from hacking and cybercrime to threats and mitigation. He also focuses on open source and emerging technologies, all the while trying to cut through greenwash.

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  • Interesting how iris scanning works on the 'scientific' premise that your eyes never change, but yet, they have to re-take images every few years..? Well, I kinda know why..

    I knew that iris biometrics was doomed from the beginning because there are way too many complex issues including changes in the eye through puberty and age including pupillary size or pupil deformation changes that can greatly affect the iris structure trabeculae. There also known changes in the collarette resulting from trauma weather psychological or physical. Pigment changes in iris are common at birth, puberty and age associated, eg. pancreatic, liver, etc.

    What mainly bothered me most about using the human eye on security technology is that your eyes can also show genetic flaws in connective tissue and yet there were over 350,000 sheeple in the U.K. willing to give the government\corporations such personal and sensitive information.

    P.S. To prove a point, please inform individual who's eye was included in this article, that an inherent thyroid weakness is more likely the contributing to any current cardiac insufficiencies. That is what I see in this eye at first glance..

    Secondary in this eye, splenic triad(associated immune weakness in spleen), left kidney weakness cannot be ruled out since our bodies organs/glands/nervous system all work in conjunction..

    The eyes will play an important role in future diagnostics, not big brother interests and glad to see this technology finally showed its true colors.

    This is what I consider useful in iris biometrics using the same eye in this article: :

    Would love to hear back from whoever’s eye was included in this article! ;)
  • When face recognition was tested in the UK Passport Service (UKPS) biometrics enrolment trial back in 2004, the technology failed with 31% of participants. And that's just the able-bodied participants -- with the disabled, the technology failed 52% of the time, please see

    Those figures make face recognition useless, of course, it won't make the border secure and it won't make the 2012 Olympics safe. But perhaps the technology has improved in the intervening years?

    Not according to the Indians. The Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) don't bother with face recognition at all, they use a composite biometric, fingerprints + iris scans, with which they claim to have achieved a failure rate of 0.035%, please see and

    UIDAI's figures are between 800 and 1,500 times better than the old UKPS ones.

    We need to know that UKBA are not wasting public money on face recognition with their smart gates. Does the technology work? Will it help to make the border secure? Will it help to keep the 2012 Olympics safe? And, in particular, how well does it compare with UIDAI's performance figures, what are the comparable figures for UKBA's technology?
  • Let’s not forget the system was originally introduced in 2004, initially as a pilot. At this time, such use of Iris technology was fairly innovative. That the footprint of the pilot was gradually extended and became a permanent system is indicative that the system was fairly well received. The fact that over 380,000 people have voluntarily enrolled (myself included) makes it difficult to argue that the system is derided.

    In my opinion, the turning off of the system at these two locations is more in line with a planned phasing out of this particular solution, for some rather more mundane reasons:
  • Abolition of IRIS is yet another sign that the aviation industry puts a value on your time and it's not high. In fact, it's at the bottom of its priority list.

    For example, I landed recently at Gatwick at 2300 with 20 minutes to catch the last train home, no bags to collect, only to wash up at a jam-packed passport control area that took 25 minutes to get through because there was no alternative to joining the huge queue in front of me. That was really annoying...
    Manek Dubash