Can Biometrics Move Beyond Borders?

Compatibility and privacy issues are stalling biometrics as it tries to go international


The hype surrounding biometrics technologies such as facial and iris recognition has prompted some countries to invest in the technology where they think it is most needed--protecting borders.

Biometrics has been widely touted as the next step in the evolution of identification and authentication systems. But despite the zealous reception that the technology has received from politicians and the general public, issues with system interoperability, privacy and data sharing must be solved before the technology can live up to its acclaim, some industry experts say.

Compatibility issues and questions of privacy are still hampering the efforts of countries looking to establish global biometrics standards, said Julian Ashbourn, chairman of the International Biometric Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes biometrics. He said 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 asked.

The reliability of the technology also has created cause for concern. Fingerprint and iris recognition technology have significant error rates, and facial recognition is dependent on lighting, position and expression, sparking fears that biometrics could make crossing a border less efficient.

The events that precipitated much of the current interest in biometrics to protect national borders can be traced back to 2002, when U.S. legislation set an October 2005 deadline requiring biometric passports for visitors without visas.

But the race to develop biometric passports and associated border control procedures left much of the EU struggling to meet the deadlines of the U.S. system. However, U.S. authorities eventually relented and offered a 12-month extension to EU countries.

So far, only Belgium has met the original U.S. deadline; it introduced passports based on the new technology in November 2004.

Tightening U.S. borders

While many countries are looking into biometric passports and starting trials of border control systems, the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-Visit) program is one of the few live deployments and remains the largest biometrics-based immigration and border security program in the world.

Operated by the Department of Homeland Security, US-Visit is part of a continuum of security measures that begins outside U.S. 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, the Homeland Security Department announced its decision to move to a 10-fingerprint standard instead of one requiring two fingerprints, in order to enhance security and identify visitors with even greater accuracy. The department believes that 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.

More than 860 people with criminal or immigration violations have been intercepted at U.S. borders using biometrics alone, according to the department.

Bob Mocny, deputy director of US-Visit, said biometrics 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 United States, the European Union and Australia, among others, are testing and using biometrics in border control. European authorities are working toward a common European Union immigration policy consisting of a central fingerprint database connected to the separate database of each EU country.

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