Biometric Passports: The Future Is Now

LONDON -- In the wake of the London bombings, several governments are contemplating -- with renewed urgency -- the use of biometric technology for border control.

This means companies like European smart-card maker Axalto, AXL which provides biometric technology for identification documents and access to secure networks and buildings, are likely to see increased demand for their wares.

"Biometrics is definitely a strong area of growth for us," Axalto CEO Olivier Piou told MarketWatch in an interview in Montrouge, near Paris, just before the London bombings.

That's likely even truer now.

While research on how to use biometrics to improve border safety has been under way for almost as long as fake passports and blurred pictures have confounded government agents at the immigration counter, until recently there had been little incentive for governments to invest the enormous amounts needed for the new technology.

But terrorist attacks, in the United States, Spain and now the United Kingdom, have changed the game. And there's more pressure than ever on governments to exert tighter control over their borders.

"There definitely seems to be a rush to market. In the U.S., 9/11 was a great impetus to the adoption of biometrics for border control," said Farzin Deravi, an expert in biometrics and an academic in information technology at the University of Kent.

Now the United Kingdom is feeling the rush too.

Before the terrorist bombings in London on July 7, Prime Minister Tony Blair tried to convince parliament to introduce biometric ID cards.

The project faced fierce opposition then, mainly because of cost and privacy concerns, in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Now, however, public opinion seems to have shifted. Shortly after the subway and bus bombings, which killed more than 50 people, a poll for the Times of London found that 61% of the British public supported the introduction of the cards.

Axalto is at the forefront of several biometric-identification projects being considered in the United States and the United Kingdom.

So how does a biometric passport work?

The solution developed by Axalto for the U.S. features a microchip embedded in the cover of the passport. The chip contains all the information found on a traditional passport, but also a fingerprint scan; it has significant processing power and only costs a few dollars.

When a passport holder is at the immigration booth, his fingerprint is scanned by a reader and then compared with that held in the chip. At the same time, those fingerprints are checked against a database for any terrorist or criminal background.

"It's safer and quicker than traditional passports," said Axalto's Piou.

But it's not cheap.

In 2002, a study done for the U.S. General Accounting Office found that the initial cost of issuing passports with biometrics using fingerprint recognition was $4.49 billion. There was also an annual recurring cost of $1.57 billion.

Those costs include system engineering and program management, development, installation and training, biometric hardware, and also the creation of additional space at consulates and embassies.

The cost of issuing passports with biometrics that go beyond the fingerprint, and use fingerprint, iris and facial recognition, has been estimated at $8.76 billion for the United States, with an annual recurring cost of $2.37 billion. These so-called multi-modal passports are harder to fake because they examine different factors to verify identity.

In addition to the cost implications, other issues hinder biometrics.

Privacy advocates, for instance, are concerned the new passports will give governments a means of tracking its citizens and obtaining sensitive information.

Piou said with Axalto's solution, these fears are unfounded because the comparison of fingerprints occurs in the chip itself. "That means the information never leaves the owner's passport. No information stays in the (passport) reader," he said.

Meanwhile, biometrics expert Deravi points out that the technology has only been tested on small sampling of individuals. "At best, we don't know how the technology will perform at the scale of a country's population," he said.

Different biometric indicators also perform differently. Face recognition usually performs poorly, whereas iris recognition is believed to be more accurate.

Deravi is also concerned the technology may not be as secure as some suggest.

"There is evidence of people being able to spoof biometric measures," he said, citing the example of a Japanese professor who makes fake fingers yielding fingerprints that can fool the system.

Of course, countermeasures can be developed to eliminate such issues, Deravi said.

The problem remains, however, that if the technology is rushed to market, there may not be enough time for scientists to understand its shortcomings. That would mean governments couldn't necessarily take the appropriate legislative and technological measures to counterbalance those risks.

But for now, nothing is set in stone.

The U.S. Department of Defense hasn't yet decided to whom it will award the contract to make biometric passports. Apart from Axalto, there's only one other European company on the shortlist: German chipmaker Infineon Technologies AG IFX623100.

Infineon also makes security-cryptal controllers that can be used in electronic passports. And it has already provided the smart cards used by the some U.S. government agencies for access to their buildings and networks.

Contract aside, biometrics has been lucrative for Axalto so far.

The share price for the Netherlands-based firm, which trades on the Paris stock exchange, has risen from 15 euros in August 2004 to about 27 euros now as the company has honed in on the biometric world.

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