Heathrow eGates added to border confusion

Heathrow eGates added to border confusion

Summary: Biometric 'eGates' intended to speed immigration checks at Heathrow have in fact slowed passengers down, even though the gates had been altered to allow false positives, according to independent chief inspector of borders and immigration John Vine.A 2011 inspection found that the 'tuning' on the three facial-recognition eGates at Terminal 3 had been 'turned down', allowing incidents such as a wife to pass through the gates using her husband's passport, Vine said in a report (PDF) on Wednesday.

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TOPICS: Security
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Biometric 'eGates' intended to speed immigration checks at Heathrow have in fact slowed passengers down, even though the gates had been altered to allow false positives, according to independent chief inspector of borders and immigration John Vine.

A 2011 inspection found that the 'tuning' on the three facial-recognition eGates at Terminal 3 had been 'turned down', allowing incidents such as a wife to pass through the gates using her husband's passport, Vine said in a report (PDF) on Wednesday. The mix-up was only spotted by an immigration officer.

"The term 'tuning' was used to describe how accurate the image on the passport had to be to match the image captured of the passenger at the time," said the report. "Staff stated that when the tuning was turned up, the gates refused a lot of people."

The inspection compared the time it took for immigration officers to manually check passports, and found the humans processed passengers more quickly than the gates. In addition, the gates had difficulty reading Scandinavian passports, rejected people who should have been allowed into the country, and one gate crashed regularly.

"The [Border] Agency's website states that eGates 'are a secure and convenient self-service alternative to the conventional border control process'," said the report. "The feedback from staff and our observations indicate that at present this is not the case."

Vine said that the security of the gates was poor enough for his team to be concerned about the facial recognition technology that has been in operation at other ports since 2008.

The UK Border Agency told ZDNet UK on Thursday that the gates were "highly technical pieces of kit with complex moving parts", and added that the gates were monitored by immigration officials.

Immigration minister Damian Green said in a statement: "This report covers the period before the Border Force was split from the UK Border Agency and since then we have taken action to tackle these issues. We now have more staff at the border during peak times, greater flexibility to man immigration and customs controls, clearer guidance for staff on when vital checks are required and a national training programme with more emphasis on mentoring."

Passengers experienced long delays at Heathrow Terminal 3 on Thursday after border staff went on strike over public sector pension cuts, according to the Financial Times.

Topic: Security

Tom Espiner

About Tom Espiner

Tom is a technology reporter for ZDNet.com. 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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2 comments
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  • The problem with the eGates in my experience is that: a) they are confusing as to what you actually need to do, so the design needs looking at and b) they take 30-60 seconds, at least to recognise a passport and your face. This is an egregiously long time to wait while the system faffs around, especially with a big queue behind you.
    Manek Dubash
  • ...and it would help if the immigration officers told you to remove your glasses. Biometric passports require you to have the photo taken without even if you wear them always as I have to. The wretched thing faffs around trying to get a clear image while seeing reflections off your specs and then fails - hardly surprising ! If you take them off, you do stand a fighting chance of being recognised. But as Manek says why it faffs around reading your passport for 30s before starting looking at you, heaven only knows, I thought the data was on the RFID chip, it should take a second to read that, and should contain a cache of all the "undesirables" which would take no time to compare against.
    keynet-dee85