Database will read passports in seconds

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The Independent Online
Immigration officials will soon be able to check travellers against a list of 400,000 banned or suspect individuals held on a new pounds 10m computer database.

The Suspect Index System - which automatically reads passports and cross references names and aliases in seconds - is one of a series of measures planned by the Government to curb illegal immigrants. They will include restricting benefits to asylum seekers and, under legislation to be announced in the autumn, compelling employers to check the immigration status of potential staff.

The new computer, unveiled at London's Heathrow Airport yesterday by immigration minister Nicholas Baker, answers one of the major criticisms of immigration control practice. Earlier this year the National Audit Office condemned it as outdated saying illegal immigrants were slipping in while legitimate travellers suffered unnecessary delay.

Previously immigration officers relied on intelligence files held on paper, which were updated manually on a daily basis. Those files held 10,000 names - two-and-a half per cent of the information which will now be instantly available.

But yesterday immigration welfare groups said they were concerned that suspected illegal immigrants were being lumped together with alleged terrorists and drug traffickers.

Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants said: "The security provision of the Data Protection Act means that many people will not have access to the information being stored. We have grave concerns about the secrecy and unaccountability surrounding it."

However Mr Baker said that in the six-months the system had been on trial at Heathrow, Gatwick Airport, the port of Dover and the Channel tunnel, it had picked out 10,000 matches from its files.

"We now have one of the most advanced and effective immigration controls systems in the world," he said.