Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

The passports of the future are almost upon us

Travel: the next best thing to staying at home? You may share that jaundiced view of going overseas after suffering the indignities of applying for a passport - especially if you go in person to Globe House in central London, home of the UK Passport Service.

Travel: the next best thing to staying at home? You may share that jaundiced view of going overseas after suffering the indignities of applying for a passport - especially if you go in person to Globe House in central London, home of the UK Passport Service.

An electronic voice has just instructed: "Ticket 2,873 please go to counter 26". Everyone in the forlorn waiting room has already been through a security check less agreeable than the scrutiny at Stansted airport. The more pressing the personal need for urgent assistance with documentation it seems the slower everything becomes. The experience reminds me of Soviet immigration but without the bonhomie.

Once you make it through the security checkpoint, you queue at a desk. Here, you are required to show that you have an official appointment. If not, you will be directed to a telephone to arrange one at some time in the distant future with staff working two floors up in this very building. No longer can you just turn up and wait.

But because I haven't come for a passport, my experience is, for the most, pleasant. After a couple of minutes' wait on the second floor, a friendly official takes my personal details, and a photograph. I am invited to place the tips of my fingers on a plate of glass. With no ink to tarnish proceedings, a digital picture is taken of my digits.

Next, I am asked to gaze at a camera that looks curiously like a periscope. This is the iris scan - a laser-ripping-through-my-eyes-and-brain nightmare, I had imagined. The preliminaries are disconcerting, with a synthesised female American voice instructing me to move backwards, forwards, up or down until my eye is correctly aligned. But when a synthesised series of clicks is fired off, I realise that the unique pattern of my iris has been painlessly captured.

This account may read like incidental action in a low-rent science-fiction movie. In fact, it is the very near future. With identity theft and fears about terrorism increasing, the Passport Service is finally getting round to trying to make sure that people are who they say they are. From next summer, new UK passports will include a paper-thin electronic chip that contains unique personal data.

Initially, the only physical measurement will be "a facial recognition biometric". The data for this can be taken from a passport photograph snapped in any old photo booth. The slight individual variations in dimensions between eyes, nose and mouth should be sufficient to allow a computer to assign a unique recognition code to each of us - and even distinguish between supposedly identical twins.

Is the technology clever enough? That is what a six-month trial is hoping to establish. "Smart passports" will steadily get smarter. Soon, a second biometric - either a fingerprint or an iris pattern - will be incorporated. This will require you to turn up to have your data captured. And I was part of the experiment to help figure out how well the system will work.

The UK Passport Service has called in the pollsters, Mori, to recruit 10,000 volunteers in England and Scotland to undergo the recording and verification of biometrics. The aim is to get an idea of what technical problems may need to be overcome and to gauge impressions about how comfortable people feel about the experience.

On the scale of indignities that visitors to the passport office experience every day, I doubt that many travellers will object to the new procedures. Receiving instructions from a robotic photographer barely registers compared with being ordered to "Stand there. Empty your pockets".

Plenty of people will fret about the use to which personal data may be put. Your biometrics will be shared with other organisations, in the same manner that the credit-card number and other personal information of transatlantic travellers is available to US government agencies. And you had better get used to being photographed and fingerprinted at checkpoints. After all, there is no reason for the authorities to provide a "smart passport" unless they get to measure your biometrics. Anyone aiming for America will have to get used to having their face freeze-framed and their fingerprints taken.

Meanwhile, back at Globe House, the test is almost over. I have been given a credit-card-sized pass with a chip containing my magic metrics. The final step is to see if the computer can work out who I am. The camera takes a picture, and in some hidden back room the mainframe rattles through millions of images to match the face with a name. Brad Pitt? Rowan Atkinson? Gérard Depardieu?

Failure. No match. Do not pass Go. I collected my card, and what remained of my dignity, and left the building. But not the country - I guess my face just didn't fit.

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