Biometric Borders

Facial, iris and fingerprint recognition systems promise greater security and quicker processing for passengers.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  November 4, 2004

|~|biometriceye_m.jpg|~||~|All air travellers know the frustration of arriving at their destination after a long flight and then finding an enormous queue at the passport control desk. These lines are in danger of becoming even longer as governments implement tighter border control regulations, which will require more stringent checks. However, the use of new technologies, particularly biometrics, should allow immigration authorities to cut the queues without lowering their guard. Within the region, Dubai’s e-Gate system provides a clear example of the benefits of using biometrics at a border crossing point. Registered users are able to join the scheme by paying Dhs 150 (US $41) for a card, which is valid for two years. The card has on it such details as the user’s name and photo, and also a digital record of the holder’s fingerprint. When passing through Dubai International Airport, the user is able to swipe their card on a reader and step through a gate, which closes behind them. They then press their finger on reader, which opens a second gate, letting them in — or out of — the country. The system is only available to Dubai residents, but it is a key part of reducing the queues at the airport’s immigration desks. “As Dubai prepares to handle 30 million visitors by 2010, the pressure on passport control staff is going to be tremendous,” comments Brigadier Saeed bin Belailah, director of Dubai Naturalisation & Residency Department (DNRD). “e-Gate has been created with this aspect in mind. It takes just five seconds for pre-registered passengers to complete the formalities, using the electronic identification card.” Similar solutions are also now being discussed by other Middle East authorities, led by the UAE, which has issued an RfP for a system to be installed in the rest of the country’s airports. The project, which is being managed by Abu Dhabi’s Ministry of Interior, will see the installation of an e-gate system that uses both iris and finger scans. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is looking at a system that will use all three of the main biometrics: facial, iris and finger. “Every GCC country has got a biometrics project of some sort underway,” says Patrick Gilmore, vice president, sales, EMEA, Daon. “This is because the area is a hotbed of technology… the decision-making process is a lot simpler — so they can get on and do things — and it is a market where people realise that security is an issue.” Security is, of course, the key driver for these projects, as biometrics will allow governments to keep much greater control over who is entering their country. This is needed as while someone — be it a terrorist or deported labourer — can change their name and passport, their fingerprints and irises will always be the same. “People can change their passports and they can change their nationality, but they cannot change their unique characteristics,” notes Gilmore. Biometric data can be used in two main ways at border checkpoints, either on a special e-gate card, as in Dubai, or by embedding an RFID chip with the data on it inside the cover or data page of a traditional paper passport. However, implementing either method on a national level clearly creates a huge challenge in terms of collecting and managing the necessary biometric data from a population of millions. “Any big project, in deployment terms, is very complex, as you have to have big databases. The hardware therefore tends to be fairly complicated and fairly expensive,” says Gilmore. ||**|||~||~||~|There also needs to be proper policies and procedures in place to ensure that the right cards or passports are given to the right people, and that only eligible citizens are able to receive one. “You have to look at the complete business case. The card is a very important element as it is the key; however, all the doors need to be put in place before you get the key,” says Ian Salter, regional coordination manager, Datacard Group. These challenges are all apparent when introducing national ID cards that are just for use internally. However, further difficulties arise when introducing biometric systems at border-crossings, as at least two governments are then involved: the traveller’s home country and where they are going. This is why automated border control systems using biometrics, such as Dubai’s e-Gate, are presently limited to just registered travellers from that country, as it is much simpler to manage. However, this also limits the benefits of the system, as foreign travellers cannot use it. Similarly, Dubai residents can only use an e-gate at one end of their journey. To get round this problem, Gulf States are working on a project that will allow all of their residents to use e-gate systems at any airport in the GCC. This will be easier to undertake than a more general global project because of the existing links between the countries involved. “When you are in a close-knit group of countries like the GCC or EU you can travel with a different document to a standard passport anyway,” notes Salter. “So it is much faster to move forward with a card solution… than trying to implement biometric passports or e-gate solutions worldwide.” In the project, each of the GGC countries’ new biometric-enabled national ID cards will be integrated into e-gate solutions at border points, beginning with airports. The plan has a long way to go — only Oman has so far issued biometric-based ID cards to its population — but there is clear movement. The UAE, for instance, is set to issue national ID cards to its 2 million inhabitants early next year, while Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have all issued tenders for similar projects. Kuwait is also devising a national ID card project, and the GCC is aiming to ensure that the various cards work across the region. “Nothing has been decided yet, but the trend is to have some inter-operability, for instance, at borders,” says Pierre Servettaz, Middle East director of Gemplus, which manufactured both Oman’s and the UAE’s national ID cards. “I think it will happen [at borders] in the next few years, as the need for better security at border-crossings is becoming urgent… And once ID card systems are deployed in two or more countries, using them as passports will be the first step towards inter-operability cooperation.” The technical issues for such inter-operability are not too difficult, as the GCC countries are all using open standards such as JavaCard and Multos. As such, the cards should be easily readable in the different countries, even if the governments all chose different suppliers. However, standards are needed in terms of deciding what information will be placed on the cards. Some parts, such as a colour photo and details in both English and Arabic are clear, but questions remain in other areas. For instance, the governments need to decide whether to use full Arab names, which can be very long, or just abridged versions. The key issue though, is which biometrics to include. Fingerprints are certain, but whether there will also be facial and/or iris scans on the cards is yet to be decided. This dilemma reflects one of the key issues holding back the implementation of biometric systems at border checkpoints around the world. No governments wants to spend on implementing all three biometrics — facial, iris and fingerprint — in their passports or ID cards, if only one or two of them are going to be used by most countries. At the same time, however, no country wants to just pick one or two and then see the third option becoming the most popular. “The question is which biometrics do you put on the card to make it inter-operable with the countries you want to be inter-operable with,” concludes Salter.||**|||~||~||~|Agreement on this issue, along with technical questions about how to store the data, is clearly easier on a regional rather than global level, which is why groupings like the GCC are leading the way. However, worldwide standardisation drives, which are key for e-passports, are underway. ICAO, for instance, has adopted a global blueprint for storing biometric information on machine-readable travel documents and chosen facial recognition as the first biometric. This is unlikely to be implemented globally though, until the organisation comes to a decision on how to structure the information. “Basically, we have built the bookcase, but we have not yet decided where to put the books,” says Salter. “And very few governments are going to want to invest heavily in a solution until we have a standard in place.” However, the issue has received an urgent boost of late after the American government made changes to its visa wavier programme (VWP) mandating facial biometrics. The VWP allows visitors from 27 predominately European countries to enter the US for less than 90 days without a visa; however, following the changes this will only be available to people with an e-passport containing a digital photograph. This was meant to come into force from 26th October, but the plan was postponed for a year after 21 of the countries involved requested a delay, as they were not in a position to start issuing compliant passports. The direct impact of the changes to the VWP on the Middle East are limited as no countries are included in the programme. However, indirectly it could have a huge impact on passports issued here, as the US directive is likely to become a global standard. The UAE Ministry of Interior, for instance, has issued a tender for e-passports containing a photo, which would meet the US requirement, as have other governments around the world. “Currently, everything is moving towards e-passports only because the US has decided to have this programme,” says Servettaz. “ However, this is good, as it forcing countries into action.”||**||

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