Computing: Forget the passport, let's see your hand: Biometric identification is putting an end to the long immigration queue. Simon Davies reports

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The Independent Online
An intriguing new immigration lane appeared at John F Kennedy airport in New York last year. What distinguishes it from the traditional immigration procedure is the absence of officialdom: it is controlled by computer technology and can automatically identify and process a passenger in as little as 20 seconds.

The Fast (Future Automated Screening for Travellers) lane identifies passengers from the characteristics of their hands rather than their passports, then runs checks on them through US government computer systems. Automated immigration lanes are appearing throughout the world - Toronto, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and on the US-Mexico border - as part of an international experiment.

The JFK project, called Inspass (Immigration and Naturalization Service Passenger Accelerated Service System), has been operating for the past 14 months as a voluntary system for frequent travellers. More than 30,000 people have so far enrolled in the system, and up to 1,000 more are joining each week. Governments in 26 countries, including the UK, are monitoring the project.

If the Inspass trial is successful, the technology may ultimately make conventional ID cards and passports redundant. But as a trade-off for moving through immigration more quickly, passengers would have to accept a system that has the potential to generate a vast amount of international traffic in their personal data. Ultimately, a universal immigration control system may be linked to a wide spectrum of other information sources, such as police and tax systems.

Inspass employs biometrics, a process that identifies people by their physical characteristics rather than through a personal identification number, password or other document. The best-known forms of biometry are fingerprinting, retina scans, hand geometry, voice recognition and digitised photography.

In recent years biometric technology has become remarkably sophisticated and its accuracy far surpasses other forms of identification. A system called Iriscan, for example, which scans the eye, is generally accurate to 10 to the 15th power: in other words, theoretically no two people on the planet will register the same eye scan.

Digital fingerprint recognition is also capable of remarkable accuracy. The Biometric Technologies Company in the US is in the final stages of developing a biometric fingerprinting system using neural networks that mimick the functions of the human brain. Some laboratory tests are showing an accuracy of 0.0001 per cent, or one false identification per million scans. A device known as Printscan 3 is expected to be released early next year at only pounds 400 per unit.

Spain is planning a national fingerprint system for identifying unemployment benefit claimants. Russia has announced plans for a national electronic fingerprint system for use by banks. Jamaicans will shortly need to scan their thumbs into a database before qualifying to take part in elections, and will need a smart card to vote at the polling station. Blue Cross and Blue Shield in the US have plans to introduce nationwide fingerprinting for hospital patients.

Because Inspass is said to be capable of checking identities with perfect accuracy, it could be ideally suited to European demands for a hard 'outer shell' to stop illegal entry. A draft evaluation of the system has given Inspass the green light.

Officilas from the US Immigration and Naturalization Service, which is responsible for Inspass, are confident that a universal project can be established, using common international standards and a smart card system that can cope with either a hand geometry or a fingerprint scan. According to staff on the Inspass project, all European governments are committed to the goal of automated immigration processing. The Home Office will say only that it is monitoring Inspass with interest, though INS officials say the 'interest' is strong.

The thorny question is whether such a system might ultimately be manipulated by governments and airline companies anxious to receive more information about passengers. A database of hand prints might find its way into general use by the governments of developing countries keen to monitor their populations; but it is also a fair bet that Western nations will also think of ingenious ways to extend the system.

INSPASS is available to most frequent travellers to and from the US. The main condition is that participants must be US or Canadian nationals, or nationals of the 32 countries in the US visa waiver scheme. These include Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.

Travellers who visit the US at least three times a year are invited to apply in writing for Inspass registration. Applicants then attend one of the Inspass enrolment centres at JFK or Newark airports, where they are interviewed and their identity confirmed. The traveller places the palm of a hand on the surface of a scanner, which records details of its shape and contours. These are converted into a template and stored on a card - currently a paper card, but soon to be a smart card. Fingerprints are also taken and recorded at this point.

When Inspass members enter the two test airports, they bypass the main immigration queues and go straight to the Inspass kiosk. Inside, the card is presented to the terminal and the hand is placed on a scanner.

The device matches the biometry of the palm with the template encoded into the card. The immigration information systems are consulted. Once the last of five green lights appears at the tips of the fingers, the glass exit door opens and the passenger continues to the baggage claim and customs zone.

The writer is a visiting law fellow of the universities of Essex and Greenwich.

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