Biometrics beyond borders

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...

...move to a 10-fingerprint standard instead of two, in order to enhance security and identify visitors with even greater accuracy. The DHS believes the additional fingerprint scans will increase the level of accuracy from 96 percent to 100 percent and result in fewer people being sent for secondary inspection.

Ten fingerprint standard
More than 860 people with criminal or immigration violations have been intercepted at US borders on their biometrics alone. A third of the 11,000 hits against watch lists of known criminals, when visitors applied for visas in the last year, are attributable to biometrics, says the DHS.

Bob Mocny, deputy director of US VISIT says biometric technology will prove critical in boosting border security. “We’ve already eliminated visa fraud by the use of biometrics,” he says. "Now if the DHS has a record of someone who has attempted to enter the country illegally that person will be denied application for a biometric passport.”

Outside the US, the EU and Australia, among others, are testing and using biometrics in border control. European authorities are working towards a Common European Union Immigration Policy (EUIP) which consists of a central fingerprint database, connected to the separate database of each EU country.

Alternative international biometric standards are also being developed by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) and the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO). The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) plans to standardise biometric technology for machine-readable travel documents but biometric data sharing arrangements between the United States and other countries would also be required.

Standards agency needed
Due to the various potentially competitive standards, biometrics experts have called for an international standards agency to monitor deployments of the technology to ensure that it is used as efficiently as possible across multiple countries.

The UK is one of the countries that will need workable standards to adhere to sooner rather than later. Authorities are already developing a biometric system to read the fingerprints of visitors which is expected to be in place by 2008, though the Passport agency has expressed concerns over the viability of other biometric methods, such as iris recognition. The government has also put in place an automated biometric immigration control scheme called IRIS, which is currently in operation at London Heathrow Terminals two and four. Five UK airports — Birmingham, Gatwick (both terminals), Heathrow (all terminals), Manchester (terminals one and two) and Stanstead will all eventually have the technology.

The UK e-borders system is another implementation of biometrics technology which will capture, review and store data about immigrant travel routes. In addition to giving arrival and departure information, carriers will be obliged to submit information about their passengers to the UK authorities before the traveller’s arrival. The system was implemented on a trial basis in December 2004 on a few selected routes and will run for 39 months. If it is deemed to be successful, the system will be replaced with a full implementation.

As more countries require the use of biometrics to cross their borders there is potential for different biometrics to be required for entering different countries or for the growth of multiple databases conflicting, isolated databases. Unless all countries agree on standard biometrics and standard document formats, a host of biometric scanners might be required at ports of entry across the Globe.

Tom Espiner contributed to this report