Heathrow kicks off 'fingerprint fast-track' security checks

Tracking with a soupcon of fast...

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The Telegraph reveals that the UK government is plotting fingerprinting of air passengers as a matter of routine, to check the identity of departing passengers and to tighten up border controls for incoming. Which, given the firmness of the regime's plans for ID cards, is scarcely news in the long term - but in the interim, turkeys are apparently being asked to volunteer for Christmas, now.

A trial at Terminal 3 of Heathrow Airport was announced in August, but the moisturisers of death panic kind of wiped it off the front pages. miSense is being run for Heathrow flights with Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong or Emirates to Dubai, and is voluntary, the intention being to "simplify your journey through the airport while maintaining high standards of security." Passengers scan their passport photo page and give a single fingerprint at the miSense check-in kiosk, and this data is used for identity verification during travel.

It's not immediately obvious what the basic miSense system simplifies for the traveller. After entering the data you can use the kiosk to check in, as you might do with any 'normal' automated check-in kiosk, and then just before you get to security control you can use your fingerprint to go through the "miSense automatic security gate", after which you can go to, er, "airport security as normal." But presumably the miSense security gate is a priority lane. On boarding, again you get to go to a special desk to be fingerprinted, but at least you get priority boarding.

Is it the apparent pointlessness of this process that has induced the organisations involved to crack straight on with miSenseplus? This enhanced version started on 6th November, just weeks after the basic miSense kicked off, and links immigration in the UK, Hong Kong and the UAE to produce "an international automated fast track passport control service." Essentially, it's an experimental pre-vetting system that is intended to use biometrics to nail down the ID of travellers the system 'knows' are safe, and it overlaps with, or more likely is, Project Iris, an iris-recognition pilot being run for frequent fliers in the UK, and intended to have been rolled out to ten airports by December.

Ah, but who's in charge here? miSense, the "collaboration between airport authorities, immigration services and industry", or UK immigration? At the miSenseplus enrolment office "an immigration officer will check your passport and direct you to the miSenseplus enrolment area", where you will sign a consent "for your personal and biometric details to be used to conduct criminality checks." miSenseplus collects ten fingerprints, facial image and iris scans of both eyes, whereas as Project Iris was intended to confine itself to iris, but it would be entirely unsurprising if it turned out that Project Iris' (voluntary) take-up had been negligible, and that miSenseplus had been co-opted in order to produce a reasonable data set.

For what it's worth, Project Iris was intended to be evaulated after the full roll out had been completed in December, whereas the miSenseplus pilot runs until 31st January.

The carrot for the upgraded service is more tempting - fast track clearance on entry and exit. And the stick? Bizarrely, despite collecting all that other biometric data, miSenseplus still only seems to use right index finger for recognition, as with the basic service.

So the rest is for...? Practice collecting the complete set of biometrics the UK currently wants (apparently we don't want gait - yet) will be helpful for the Home Office, as will practice checking the data against police and government records. The data gathered "will be held in confidence and stored securely by the UK Immigration Service for the duration of the trial", and only "officers of the border control agencies of the United Kingdom and named employees of the technical maintenance businesses operating miSense and miSenseplus will have access to this database."

Except to the extent that "the data you provide may be checked against databases held by other UK Government departments and agencies for evidence of criminality. The results of searches against these databases may affect your ability to continue to participate in the trial but will not affect your right to travel." Yum. Furthermore the data "may also be disclosed to other government departments and agencies, local authorities and law enforcement bodies to enable them to carry out their functions, including the prevention and detection of crime." So what was that about only border control officers and miSense techies having access? And isn't it a bit weird that the border control people in Hong Kong and Dubai aren't mentioned? What are they supposed to be checking the prints against?

If significant amounts of data sharing with other agencies does take place, then it's difficult to see how it could all be retrieved in order for miSense to honour its commitment to destroy all personal information gathered at the end of the trial period. However, given that that the UK's capabilities for performing fast checks of biometrics against records are extremely limited (they could be checked against police fingerprint records, asylum seeker records and biometric visa records, but probably not at any great velocity), there probably won't be any systematic checking in this pilot.

Nor, given the shortness of the trial period (6th November to 31st January) is it likely that the pilot will generate any credible data for security purposes. How many people will be flying to Hong Kong or Dubai more than once in that period? Some, certainly, but not many will be making the trip enough times to make it worth the bother of signing up.

So what's the point of the pilot? As we said at the outset, it's certainly not news that the UK government intends to check everybody's biometrics on the way in and out, so the point isn't to gather data to decide whether or not it's a good idea, but to hone the collection and reading processes and to get travellers used to them. Of course, if you're going to present this kind of exercise as a simplification and speeding up of processes for the passenger's benefit, then it would make a certain amount of sense to run a pilot for long enough for more than a handful of people to actually benefit. But in the long run it doesn't matter, because in the long run you have no choice.

The group running miSense consists of Accenture, BAA, Cathay-Pacific, Emirates, the Home Office, IER (airport ticketing), Raytheon Systems, Sagem Défense Sécurité, and SITA, and the list of associate members adds further to the heavyweights piling into a very small pilot. Raytheon is providing programme management and technical oversight, and proudly boasts that along with Accenture, it was responsible for the US-VISIT programme. Former UK government CIO Ian Watmore, who now heads the Prime minister's delivery unit, and Identity & Passport Service chief executive James Hall, are both ex-Accenture. ®

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