Heathrow to Add Biometric Security

A voluntary trial to the end of January begins on Emirates and Cathay Pacific flights. Fingerprints, facial images, and irises may be scanned

Biometric fingerprint and iris scans will be used for screening air passengers on Emirates and Cathay Pacific flights to and from Dubai and Hong Kong as part of a trial at London's Heathrow Airport.

The miSense trial, which began last month and runs until the end of January 2007, will be voluntary and aims to enrol 2,000 passengers using Emirates and Cathay Pacific at Heathrow's Terminal 3. miSense will test basic and advanced biometric checks during the trial.

The airport authorities and the UK government claim the system will improve security and border controls by allowing passengers to bypass long queues at security and immigration - although in reality the passenger must still pass through the main manual security check and X-ray airport bottleneck even after the automated biometric check.

Speaking at the Heathrow launch today, immigration minister Liam Byrne said biometric screening will make it "much harder for people to get into the country illegally" and dismissed the civil liberties concerns about the increasing collection and use of biometric data.

He said: "If you have got nothing to hide what are you worried about? You are not only securing borders but helping people save time when they are travelling. This kind of technology will be popular."

Tony Douglas, CEO of Heathrow Airport, claimed the use of technology such as biometrics will increasingly be used for national security and to improve the passenger experience.

Douglas said: "Technology will ultimately be part of the solution. Technology will play a much bigger part in the way we travel in the future."

The basic security screening requires the passenger to scan their passport and right index finger at a self-service check-in kiosk before getting a boarding card. The passenger's fingerprint is then checked again at automatic barriers before security and at the boarding gate. But a visual check is still required before boarding the plane to ensure the person matches the photo on the passport.

The more advanced screening requires the passenger to undergo a manual enrolment at the airport where their 10 fingerprints, two irises and facial image are scanned and stored on a database. This data is then uploaded onto a smartcard that can be used by the passenger on any future journeys. Using the smartcard the passenger checks-in as normal, undergoes an automatic fingerprint check before entering security and again at the boarding gate to verify their identity. Arriving at immigration in Heathrow, Dubai or Hong Kong the passenger scans the smartcard at an automatic gate and then scans their fingerprint. If the two match the barrier opens and allows them straight through.

One of the stated aims of the trial is to test the feasibility of advanced passenger screening in the UK. This means that once the passenger has been biometrically identified at check-in their details are checked against various government, intelligence and immigration databases and 'watch lists' before the passenger is allowed to board the plane. This system is already extensively used by Australia and New Zealand.

The project is being run in conjunction with the airport authorities and immigration services in Dubai, Hong Kong and the UK and and Emirates and Cathay Pacific airlines. A consortium of technology companies, including Accenture, IER, Raytheon Systems, Sagem Defense Securite and airline IT body Sita, has provided the technology for the trial.

No cost has been put on the project but all the technology companies are funding their own involvement.

Heathrow is also taking part in the government's Project Iris trials at terminals 2 and 4, which use automatic iris recognition technology to speed up the immigration checks for frequent flyers. That is part of the wider £400m e-borders programme for the advanced screening of travellers arriving and departing at all the UK's major air, rail and sea ports by the end of 2010.

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