UK eyes flyers

U.K. Immigration and Nationality Directorate

U.K. officials announced plans today to install an iris-recognition system during the next year to provide greater security and faster travel through major airports.

The new Iris Recognition Immigration System (IRIS) is the first big initiative in the government's e-Borders program. Officials will start installing the system at Heathrow airport outside of London and then expand it to airports in Birmingham, Gatwick, Manchester and Stansted. Those five airports handle the majority of the international arrivals to the United Kingdom.

Enrollment in the IRIS program will be voluntary, and for now, the system will be used only by a select group of foreign nationals that the government plans to invite into the program. Government officials will invite individuals with proven records of compliance with U.K. immigration laws. They will first seek those who live in the country permanently or hold work permits, officials said.

More than 90 million people pass through the United Kingdom's immigration controls each year, according to the Home Office, and officials expect that within five years more than one million of those will be registered to use the system.

"We need to ensure that our controls are robust enough to let in only those with the right to be here and efficient enough to process legitimate passengers quickly," Immigration Minister Des Browne said in a statement. "We are developing biometric technology to further protect our borders, rolling out its use in visas, passports and eventually ID cards."

The United States' immigration solution, the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, is much more comprehensive than the IRIS program. It is already using fingerprint scanning to authenticate noncitizens at airports nationwide, and Homeland Security Department officials are working to expand that program to the 50 largest land ports of entry by the end of the year.

DHS officials have stated that they do not plan to move to any other type of biometric for US-VISIT in the immediate future. They do expect, however, the solution to change as biometrics and other security technologies mature.

The European Commission is in the middle of a public comment period on a proposed Visa Information System, including a focus on the use of biometrics as an authentication mechanism.

Both fingerprint and iris scanning have benefits and drawbacks. Fingerprint scanning is often considered less intrusive, while an iris scan is less vulnerable to fraud. At the same time, fingerprint readers can be affected by materials that gather on readers and iris scanners can be hampered by the light around the subject.

Neither have a perfect accuracy rate, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology is working with other organizations to better measure the accuracy rate and improve the scanning technologies themselves.

The United Kingdom's Home Office recently signed a five-year contract with the French company Sagem SA to develop the iris-recognition immigration system. Sagem's biometric solutions are used by government systems worldwide, including the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System and an access control solution for more than 90,000 airport employees at France's Charles de Gaulle and Orly airports. Almost all of those contracts are for fingerprint-based systems.


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