Iris scans and passenger databases to protect UK borders

How are preparations for the £400m e-Borders project shaping up so far?

How are preparations for the £400m e-Borders project shaping up so far?

Around 200 million passengers passed through UK airports in 2003 - and if growth continues as predicted, by 2030 as many as 600 million passengers will pass through UK airports each year.

As a result of this massive increase in travel, coupled with the fear of international terrorism, the government wants to tighten and automate security at borders.

The government talking to suppliers about the £400m e-Borders project, which will use biometrics and databases to check the identity of passengers even before they travel to the UK.

The system will also record details of who has left the country, making it easier to spot visitors that overstay.

The contract - for the design, development, implementation, support and operation of the IT systems which will link border control authorities - is likely to run for a minimum of five and a maximum of 15 years.

Last month Home Office minister Andy Burnham said e-Borders will be fully operational by March 2014.

The programme will continue to roll out "incrementally to major air, sea and rail ports to ensure complete coverage of international services in and out of the UK by 2010". He added: "The remaining small air and sea ports will be covered in the last stage of the programme from 2010-14."

Under the e-Borders programme, airlines will have to provide advance passenger information (API) and passenger name records (PNR) electronically. Passenger details - including names, dates of birth, nationality and passport details - will be checked against government databases before they board a flight.

The system, supported by biometric visas, means UK authorities will be able to stop undesirable passengers from even travelling to the UK.

And, as of later this year, UK passports will also include a biometric identifier, increasing security further.

Any airline that fails to submit passenger lists, or carries passengers that have been refused by the UK, will face a penalty.

The passenger data provided by the airlines will allow the border agencies to identify what the Home Office describes as "persons of interest" in order to target them for "further action".

This might range from getting immigration officers from the intelligence unit to operate surveillance on a particular flight, or calling in police to arrest a passenger wanted for questioning.

As the Home Office explains: "The database of information and increasing collection of biometric data will make it harder for people to conceal their identity to frustrate our controls and make it easier to remove those who have no right to be in the country."

Several projects that will feed into the bigger programme are already in operation, including Project Semaphore - a prototype system - and Project Iris, which uses biometrics to identify frequent travellers.

Click on the links below to see more details of these projects:

Project Semaphore

In November 2004 a contract was awarded to IBM for the delivery of Project Semaphore, a working prototype system that would test the core concepts of e-Borders.

The £15m pilot scheme tests the capture of advance passenger information on a limited number of air routes. It will run until late 2007, when it will be replaced by the full e-Borders system implementation.

Semaphore captures in and outbound passenger information on 10 routes to the UK, covering 10 million passengers. The data will be matched against 'watch lists' held by the Immigration Service, Police and Customs and Excise.

The Passenger Name Records will be scored against risk profiles, and provide alerts to government agencies.

Project Iris

Project Iris (Iris Recognition Immigration System) uses iris-scanning technology to identify frequent travellers and speed up their journey through immigration.

The voluntary scheme is aimed at permanent residents, work permit holders, long-term students and frequent business travellers.

Eligible travellers have their iris patterns photographed; the images are then linked to their passport data, their immigration status in the UK and a photograph, and stored securely in a UK Immigration Service database.

After this, passengers are able to use the automated barriers to enter the UK by looking into an iris recognition camera. An electronic record is kept for every arrival via the IRIS automated barrier.

So far, the system is being tested at Heathrow Terminals 2 and 4. Operations at other airports were due to start last year but are now planned to start next month, according to the Home Office.

It is expected that within five years more than a million people will be registered to use the system.