UK airports to drop £9.1m eye-scanning tech

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
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

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.

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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