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The watchdog for the UK Border Agency says that facial recognition checks at Manchester Airport are being undermined by unreliable IT.

The independent chief inspector of the UK Border Agency found that during one week between 18 and 24 April 2010, the gates at Manchester airport's terminal 1 broke down five times.

Four were due to technical faults and one because of a lack of staff. Of the technical faults, one on 23 April resulted in a passenger getting trapped in a gate. All gates were subsequently closed and the fault was not rectified until 27 April.

UKBA managers told the inspector they had a maintenance contract with a company based in Portugal to support facial recognition gates. The contract, which covered both Manchester and other airports, was monitored by the Home Office IT unit.

Under the agreement, the gates would be fixed within four working days, but if a gate broke down on a Friday, it could be out of order until the following Thursday.

In the opinion of the inspector, this contractual time frame is too long. "If the latest technology regularly fails, staff and passengers will lose faith in its effectiveness," the chief inspector says in a report.

"The effectiveness of the facial recognition gates is in danger of being compromised both by the unreliability of the technology and the frustration of staff towards their use."

Furthermore, the inspector found no overall plan to evaluate facial recognition gates at Manchester airport and has urged UKBA to do so soon as possible.

Ten facial recognition gates were installed at terminals one and two at Manchester airport in 2008 and 2009, to check UK or EU passengers aged 18 or over who have an electronically chipped passport.

The gates work by scanning the passenger's face using a camera and matching this to the image stored on the passport. If there is a match, the gates open and the passenger is allowed through, removing the need to speak to an immigration officer.

The document says that when the gates were working, they delivered benefits to passengers, reducing the time taken to go through passport control, increasing border security and allowing the UKBA to make better use of its staff.

Between November 2009 and April 2010 when the inspection was carried out, the highest uptake of the gates was at terminal one in December 2009 when they checked 48% (9,492) of eligible passengers. The lowest number of checks was in February 2010, when they checked 4% of eligible passengers in terminal one, while the gates in the second terminal were shut.

In a foreword to the document John Vine, the independent chief inspector, says: "Increasingly, the UK Border Agency relies upon technology, such as facial recognition gates, to increase security and make better use of its staff.

"During this inspection, I found that this new technology was not operational for a significant period of time. As a result, I recommend that the UK Border Agency gives priority to evaluating the actual benefits intended by such technology."

Manchester, the largest UK airport outside the south-east, handles more than 20m passengers each year, with about 85% taking international flights.

This article was originally published at Kable.

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