UK tightens border controls through biometrics

UK's e-Borders program aims to secure stronger borders over the next seven years

The British government -- beset by fears of terrorists, crime, and illegal immigration -- has drawn up wide plans to drop a tight electronic curtain over its borders over the next seven years. It is testing several technologies as part of its "e-Borders" program, which aims for more thorough oversight over travelers coming to the U.K.

So far, more than 60,000 U.K. citizens have participated in a program that uses biometric data to process people faster through immigration lines. The Iris Recognition Immigration System, or IRIS, stores a person's iris pattern and passport details in a database, which enables them to pass through immigration electronically without a face-to-face encounter. The U.K. government says it has facilitated 210,000 border crossings since its debut in March 2006.

At Heathrow Airport, passengers tested the miSense program, which encompassed a check-in kiosk and a different biometric electronic immigration system named miSenseplus, said Stephen Challis, head of product development for BAA, which runs the airport.

The check-in kiosk used biometric data to verify passengers from check-in through to boarding.The kiosk scans the number-and-letter code on the first page of a passport along with the passenger's fingerprint. Before boarding, the passenger has to pass through a miSense gate again and pass another fingerprint scan. About 2,000 people used the kiosk during its trial at the Emirates and Cathay Pacific ticket desks.

The immigration part of the program, miSenseplus, took more biometric data: a retinal scan, 10 fingerprints, and a facial scan. About 1,000 people used the system to electronically pass through immigration in London, Dubai, and Hong Kong, BAA said.

The miSense and miSenseplus trials ended Feb. 28, while the IRIS project is ongoing. Damon Hunt, press officer for BAA, said both technologies remain under evaluation by the U.K. government and couldn't detail future plans. "All I can say is that we are exceptionally pleased," Hunt said.

Also ongoing is Project Semaphore, another test component of e-Borders that runs through March 2008. The project checks passenger names against government law enforcement databases before they arrive in the U.K. So far, 800 people have been arrested as a result of the checks, according to the Home Office.

Eric Woods, government practice director with Ovum, said most citizens positively respond to plans for stronger borders. "It tends to be a less politically contentious area," he said. But as in the U.S and the rest of Europe, fierce debates continue over how that passenger data is handled. Privacy International, a human rights group, has expressed concern over how long passenger data will be stored. The U.K. government has only said it wants to keep passenger data for a "reasonable" amount of time in order to trace terrorist movements.

The U.K. hasn't released the cost of e-Borders, but analysts such as Ovum estimate it could be up to £500 million ($962 million) based on the cost of the similar US-VISIT program. The U.K. has short-listed two consortiums to provide the systems: BT Emblem, which includes Lockheed Martin and Hewlett Packard; and Trusted Borders, including players Raytheon, Accenture, and CapGemini. The winner will be picked later this year.

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