Feeds

The robot at the border: UK bets big on face scanning

Home Secretary tells us where to stick our faces

  • alert
  • submit to reddit

High performance access to file storage

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is taking risks with public safety, whilst simultaneously condemning thousands of airline passengers to long delays this winter. That is the fear expressed by a spokesperson for the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), in reaction to government plans to test new face recognition software at airports.

From this month, the UK Border Agency is trialling new technology at Manchester Airport (and Stansted, according to the PCS) which is claimed to balance high security with quicker times at immigration control. New facial recognition gates will use scanning equipment to compare the faces of UK and EEA passengers to their biometric passports. If successful these gates could be rolled out across the country.

As we understand it, the approach applies only to those individuals who hold e-chipped passports or, we estimate, around ten to 15 per cent of the travelling population. On arriving in the UK, instead of passing their passport to an Immigration Official for the usual baleful once-over, new arrivals will place their passport on a scanner.

This will check the ID of the passport holder against a list of passengers flagged up by e-Borders as barred from flying into the UK. It will then access photographic data held on the chip, so that when the passenger steps forward to have their face scanned, a second “visual” check may be carried out.

The entire operation will continue to be supervised by e-Borders staff, who will now glare at passengers from a slightly greater distance. They may intervene at any time, and will pull a random quota of individuals from the queue for further checking. As far as the Home Office is concerned, this is an additional layer of security – not a replacement for what is already there.

There are several serious obstacles to the smooth running of this plan.

First are concerns by the Biometrics Assurance Group (pdf), reported previously in El Reg, that there is still work to do on both the facial recognition standards and the format in which facial images are stored.

It is not clear that this issue has been resolved – although the Reg has been informed that the software recently had to be recalibrated, because it was rejecting too many individuals.

This brings us to the second problem: all recognition systems throw up a number of false positives and false negatives. The precise number of each will be determined by an operational decision on where to set the acceptance criterion for individuals. A “risk averse” policy will increase the number of false positives (people stopped for no good reason), while a “risk-tolerant” policy will increase the false negatives (dodgy individuals allowed into the country).

This is a difficult call to make. One argument advanced by the Home Office is that this system will speed up passenger through-put: a few seconds per passenger, but a very large improvement when multiplied by the millions that arrive every year. It would be a stroke of wondrous serendipity to discover that the point at which this software saved all this time was also, magically, the point at which it identified as many potential terrorists and criminals as the present human method - or more.

Although in fact, for it to do that, it would need to be detecting wrong-doers far more effectively than the present system does. According to the PCS, no such comparisons have been carried out – or at least none that the Home Office has yet shared.

Computer recognition systems can work, but most have a lot to do before they even get close to matching the results from a human operator and good old-fashioned experience and intuition.

Which brings us to difficulty number three. The trial will take place in a live setting. If the software works, no problem; if it doesn’t, then expect Manchester to become destination number one for criminals seeking to avoid detection on their way into the UK.

Again, the Home Office responds that this technology has been used in numerous locations around the world, with “no major problems” reported. However, the calibration issue is one that is itself very risky to resolve. Too many false positives, and the Home Office can expect letters from outraged citizens.

Even a couple of false negatives, and the next we will know about them is when a major incident goes down somewhere in Central London.

And finally - the PCS themselves are advising staff to have nothing to do with these trials. That is unlikely to have much of an impact. Not all Immigration Staff are members of the PCS (many belong to an unaffiliated in-house body called the Immigration Services Union): nor will the PCS go so far as to declare official action over this issue.

But it won’t help.

One more time, we worry, as David Davies opined back in July, that Nu Labour are addicted to untried hi-tech solutions, taking risks with public safety that a more measured, less headline-obsessed approach would avoid. ®

Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction

More from The Register

next story
Putin tells Snowden: Russia conducts no US-style mass surveillance
Gov't is too broke for that, Russian prez says
One year on: diplomatic fail as Chinese APT gangs get back to work
Mandiant says past 12 months shows Beijing won't call off its hackers
Record labels sue Pandora over vintage song royalties
Companies want payout on recordings made before 1972
Lavabit loses contempt of court appeal over protecting Snowden, customers
Judges rule complaints about government power are too little, too late
MtGox chief Karpelès refuses to come to US for g-men's grilling
Bitcoin baron says he needs another lawyer for FinCEN chat
Don't let no-hire pact suit witnesses call Steve Jobs a bullyboy, plead Apple and Google
'Irrelevant' character evidence should be excluded – lawyers
Edward Snowden on his Putin TV appearance: 'Why all the criticism?'
Denies Q&A cameo was meant to slam US, big-up Russia
Judge halts spread of zombie Nortel patents to Texas in Google trial
Epic Rockstar patent war to be waged in California
EFF: Feds plan to put 52 MILLION FACES into recognition database
System would identify faces as part of biometrics collection
Ex-Tony Blair adviser is new top boss at UK spy-hive GCHQ
Robert Hannigan to replace Sir Iain Lobban in the autumn
prev story

Whitepapers

SANS - Survey on application security programs
In this whitepaper learn about the state of application security programs and practices of 488 surveyed respondents, and discover how mature and effective these programs are.
Combat fraud and increase customer satisfaction
Based on their experience using HP ArcSight Enterprise Security Manager for IT security operations, Finansbank moved to HP ArcSight ESM for fraud management.
The benefits of software based PBX
Why you should break free from your proprietary PBX and how to leverage your existing server hardware.
Top three mobile application threats
Learn about three of the top mobile application security threats facing businesses today and recommendations on how to mitigate the risk.
3 Big data security analytics techniques
Applying these Big Data security analytics techniques can help you make your business safer by detecting attacks early, before significant damage is done.