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Border agencies prep for multi-modal biometrics

Iris, fingers, head, shoulders, knees and toes

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The UK, Europe and the US are planning to belt and brace their border databases by using multiple forms of biometrics to identify people.

While a set of fingerprints might be considered enough to tell one person from another, the trio expect to be eventually back this up with iris scans and mug shots.

Frank Paul, head of large-scale IT systems at the European Commission's directorate of Justice, Freedom and Security, said the move was necessary so the countries' border systems could talk to one another.

The trio have been trying to find a way to make their databases compatible so they can inform one another about suspected criminals and terrorists they want to catch and immigrants they want to keep out. But they have failed to co-ordinate their efforts so far.

"There'll never be a situation where the world will agree to have one biometric," said Paul at a Homeland Security Conference in Brussels yesterday. "What we will have is a multi-modal environment."

The aim is not just to share border intelligence, but to co-ordinate immigration processes. Their strategic approaches are already the same: immigration systems in Europe and the US are beginning to categorize people according to the level of risk they pose to state and civil security. Those people who hand over their biometrics and pass all the background checks are allowed to join fast-track schemes such as the UK's Iris.

P.T. Wright, deputy director of the US Department of Homeland Security's US Visit biometric immigration scheme, said that multi-model biometrics might also allow a person registering for fast-track travel clearance in the UK to apply for similar clearance in another country at the same time.

The US prefers fingerprints, he said, but was designing its systems to handle all biometrics. The UK is considering the same.

Marek Rejman Greene, senior biometrics advisor of the UK Home Office's scientific development branch, said: "We're looking at multi-modal biometrics to identify people at the border. We're looking very closely at some of the research."

Even the FBI is redesigning its fingerprint database - the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) - to handle facial images and iris scans. But the ultimate aim is to create more powerful law-enforcement systems, for which inter-operating with the databases of other agencies and countries is integral.

The EU's security strategy also clearly states a desire to link the means of "external security" with "civil security", which would require the means to share information between civil and immigration databases.

Pat Abrahamsen, strategy and development manager for the Iris system at the Home Office's e-Borders agency, said a limited initial budget had excluded other biometrics and links to police databases from its remit. It was designed merely as as a way of taking people with a biometrically pre-qualified immigration entitlement out of immigration queues.

But its future was being reconsidered as part of a redesign, which was in its procurement round, she said.

"We are unsure where Iris will go," said Abrahamsen. "Does it move into something else?

"We do background checks - not fingerprint checks - but maybe in the future," she said. ®

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