Palm print i.d. to replace passports

IMMIGRATION officers are to be replaced by machines at a major UK airport - probably Heathrow - in a trial of a computerised passport control system that identifies travellers by their palm prints.

By pressing their hands on a monitor, then slotting a card into a machine, passengers holding an air ticket will be able to bypass queues and walk into the customs hall in 15 seconds.

The Fastgate system has been developed by computer giant IBM and is the latest technological initiative designed to prevent border officials being overwhelmed by passenger numbers.

In the next 10 years, 50 per cent more air journeys are expected to be made to and from the UK, leaving the Government with a logistical nightmare concerning frontier checks.

There is a limit to the number of immigration officers who can be employed and the space that they occupy at airports. Faced with the prospect of long snaking queues congesting British airports, technological innovation has been in order.

The need for reform has been compounded by the increasing sophistication of forgers, who are able to produce passports which can fool experienced passport control officers.

Speaking to the International Police Review journal, the deputy director general of the UK immigration service, Tim Flesher, said that Fastgate would probably be tested at Heathrow airport this autumn.

"We have to go in this direction," he said. "In 50 years' time, a paper- based system will be hopelessly old fashioned."

Discussions are already being held with IBM, which has introduced the system to Bermuda International Airport, where the authorities have been pleased with its results.

The project has been attacked though by Britain's Immigration Service Union, which has warned against putting too much faith in machines over the tried and tested system of human hunch and intuition.

General secretary Martin Slade said: "If you can design it, you can beat it. I wouldn't trust it. There isn't a computer system in the world that does not have a bug in it.

"By talking to passengers, you can tell if they are nervous. If someone is travelling business class, but looks like they've slept in the street for three nights, you can tell there's something wrong."

A Home Office official said: "We're always open to technology, but there's always the need to assess how relevant the technology is to the operation." An IBM spokesman said that Fastgate could also use fingerprint identification and voice recognition.

Travellers register with the scheme at an airport using the system, where a digital record is taken of their hand or voice. This is stored on a central database that can be accessed at any Fastgate terminal in their home country.

A card with a coded strip is also issued, containing other information on the passenger. This could be incorporated with a credit card and offered as a service to subscribers by a company.

Passengers are also screened on-line when using the system, through a link with national security databases, in case they are wanted for questioning.

Other hi-tech systems being developed for airport security round the world include a bomb disposal simulator, where cargo is stored overnight in an explosive-proof shelter and subjected to high pressures and vibrations mirroring those in a plane. This has been installed at Zurich airport, Switzerland.