Biometrics beyond borders

Summary:Countries including the UK and the US are putting biometrics at the forefront of plans to improve national border security but there are still significant issues to be solved before the technology is up to the job.

Biometrics have been widely touted as the next step in the evolution of identification and authentication systems. The hype surrounding technologies such as facial and iris recognition has prompted some states to invest in the technology where they think it is most needed — protecting borders.

But despite the zealous reception that biometrics have received from politicians and the public sector, there are still issues with system interoperability, privacy and data sharing that must be solved before the technology can live up to its press, say experts.

Compatibility issues and questions of privacy are still hampering the efforts of countries around the world to establish global biometrics standards says Julian Ashbourn, chairman of the International Biometrics Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes biometrics. He claims there are still many unanswered questions surrounding biometrics. "Where is my personal data being held, who is it being shared with, how is it backed up and archived, is it deleted when it becomes obsolete?," he asks.

The reliability of the technology has also created cause for concern, fingerprint and iris recognition technology have significant error rates and facial recognition is dependent upon lighting, position and expression, sparking fears that biometrics could make crossing a border less efficient.

Reliability concerns
But efficiency is probably not at the forefront of thinking amongst those charged with protecting borders — particularly in the US. The events that precipitated much of the current interest in biometrics being enlisted to protect national borders can be traced back to 2002 when the legislation requiring biometric passports to be introduced October 2005 entered the US statute books.

What the US decides to do, anyone hoping to do business with it must follow. But the race to develop biometric passports and associated border control procedures left much of the EU struggling to meet the stringent demands of the US system. However, US authorities eventually relented and offered a 12 month extension to EU countries.

On 15 June, 2005, the US Department for Homeland Security (DHS) announced that instead of issuing e-passports by 26 October 2005, Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) countries would only be required to produce passports with digital photographs. However the US claimed that all VWP countries should present a plan to issue passports with integrated circuit chips (machine readable) by June 2006. So far only Belgium has met the US deadline: it introduced passports based on the new technology in November 2004.

While many countries have beginning to investigate biometric passports and start trials of border control systems, the US Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US VISIT) programme, is one of the few live deployments and remains the largest biometrics-based immigration and border security programme in the world.

Operated by the DHS, US VISIT is part of a continuum of security measures that begins outside US borders and continues through a visitor’s arrival and departure from the United States. US VISIT currently applies to all visitors with limited exemptions entering the United States.

On July 13, 2005, the DHS announced its decision to...

Topics: Innovation

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