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UK border facial scan tests hit by errors and breakdowns

Calibration, reliability and tailgating issues

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A trial of automated border control using facial scanners is already in trouble, according to UK Border Agency (UKBA) sources quoted by the Daily Telegraph.

The scanners at Manchester airport, said one source, are breaking down on almost a daily basis, and the automatic booths are unable to detect 'tailgating', where two people go through on one passport.

Immigration officers have been able to sneak through behind passengers (which must be a bit disturbing for the passengers) without an alarm going off, and "when one breaks down, they all break down," said the source.

In addition, the Telegraph confirms Register sources who claimed in August that the system had been recalibrated immediately before the trial began because it was rejecting too many individuals. The paper claims that prior to this point the system was rejecting up to 30 per cent, but lowering the false rejection rate means at the same time an increase in the false acceptance rate - meaning that the late switch may well have compromised the security of the system.

Tailgating is not necessarily an issue, although it may become so as and when automated gates are live at more ports, and when ePassports are a higher proportion of the total in use. According to the Home Office, automated border controls using facial - and in the next ePassport generation, fingerprint - scanners will always be overseen by human immigration officers who will be able to spot passengers trying to subvert the system. When most passengers are using the gates, however, supervision will become harder, and a tailgating alarm that actually works will become more important.

Should the machinery prove unreliable and/or the false acceptance rate too high, UKBA will be placed in a tricky position. It has for some time now been proudly boasting of "tough new border checks" in immigration that make the queues "a little" longer, but the intention is for these queues to automagically decline without the need to hire more staff, as border control gets automated. So if they don't, then the entire cunning plan is in trouble.

But actually that might not be such a big issue, if you viewed it as a choice between switching back to soft old border checks that let the terrorists in, or modern badly calibrated automated border checks that let the terrorists in. Might need to spin these a bit, though... ®

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