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UK airports to trial face scan passport checks

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The UK Border Agency hopes to conduct trials of automated passport-check gates at UK airports this summer. The gates would use computer software to compare a traveller's face with the information stored in new biometric passports, removing the need for human staff.

"Britain's border security is now amongst the toughest in the world and tougher checks do take time," said Immigration Minister Liam Byrne in a statement.

"But we don't want long waits so the UKBA will soon be testing new automatic gates for British citizens. We'll test them this year and if they work, put them at all key ports."

The face-scanner gates would be expected to turn back a proportion of people erroneously, but these individuals would still be able to go through a conventional manned channel. So would the holders of older non-biometric passports.

All new UK passports issued since 2006 contain facial biometric data. It is estimated that more than eight million are in circulation. Future generations of the technology are supposed to introduce fingerprint and perhaps iris signatures as well.

Technology of this type has a reputation for poor accuracy, but on the other hand security analysts acknowledge that mass photo ID checks by human security staff aren't all that reliable either. The UKBA seems to think that face-recognition tech is now at a point where it may be as good as people who must compare hundreds of faces and photos every day.

In one recent test, researchers claimed to have achieved 100 per cent accuracy with automated face-spotter kit using a gallery of images. However, in general a much higher error rate is seen as normal. A trial last year by German authorities in which cameras were installed at a train station to see if they could recognise 200 known faces among thousands of unknowns averaged only a 30 per cent hit rate.

The Immigration and Passport Service (IPS) didn't seem all that sanguine about the state of the automated face scan art last year, telling the National Audit Office that "there is good potential in the future for one-to-one comparison of the image held on the passport chip with the passport holder... which could eventually enable automated border control". It was also widely noted that the chips in the new passports have only a two-year warranty from the manufacturer, but are expected to last ten years.

Home Office spokespersons contacted this morning emphasised that this summer would see only "pilot schemes", and that the technology would not be widely rolled out if problems were found. ®

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