Can Biometrics Move Beyond Borders?

Oct. 26, 2005
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.

Alternative international biometric standards are also being developed by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Organization for Standardization. The ICAO plans to standardize biometric technology for machine-readable travel documents, but biometric data-sharing arrangements between the United States and other countries would also be required.

Standards agency needed

Due to the various potentially competitive standards, biometrics experts have called for an international standards agency to monitor deployments of the technology to ensure that it is used as efficiently as possible across multiple countries.

The United Kingdom is one of the countries that will need workable standards to adhere to sooner rather than later. Authorities are already developing a biometric system to read the fingerprints of visitors. The system is expected to be in place by 2008, though the Passport Service has expressed concerns over the viability of other biometric methods, such as iris recognition. The government has also put in place an automated biometric immigration control plan, called Iris, which is currently in operation at London Heathrow Terminals No 2 and No 4. Five U.K. airports--Birmingham, Gatwick, Heathrow, Manchester and Stanstead--will all eventually have the technology.

The U.K. e-borders system is another implementation of biometrics technology that will capture, review and store data about immigrant travel routes. In addition to giving arrival and departure information, carriers will be obligated to submit information about their passengers to the U.K. authorities before the traveler's arrival.

The system was implemented on a trial basis in December 2004 on a few selected routes and will run for 39 months. If it is deemed successful, the system will be replaced with a full implementation.

Karen Gomm of ZDNet UK reported from London.