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Two UK airports scrap IRIS eye-scanners

Border Agency puts multimillion-pound system under review

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The UK Border Agency's multi-million-pound hi-tech eye-scanner programme is in danger of being scrapped, with two airports ditching the service and registration now closed.

A UKBA spokeswoman told The Register that the system was "under review", but Manchester and Birmingham airports have already stopped using their scanners.

"Obviously there's lots of new technology that's coming through at the moment – biometric passports, fingerprints – so UKBA are reviewing all the technology that's in place and iris scanning is one of them," she said.

"Iris was good technology at the time, but faster and more reliable options have become available and have been rolled out across the border so that's where we are with things."

The UKBA website said that IRIS was no longer available at Birmingham and Manchester airports, but was still open at London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

However, people are no longer able to register their eyes for the scheme, which was supposed to speed up the immigration control process for known users.

"All of our enrolment rooms at Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester airports are closed until further notice," the website said.

Passengers holding a British or EU passport with a biometrics chip will still be able to use the e-Passport gates to skip the manual immigration queues.

The IRIS scheme, which was launched in 2005/2006, cost around £4.9m to develop, the UKBA spokeswoman said.

The project was supposed to help speed up passport queues, but during the years it was operational, it was constantly being criticised.

Travellers apparently had a lot of trouble lining up their eyes with the iris recognition camera, resulting in the identification taking a lot longer than it was supposed to. Other passengers wouldn't be recognised at all by the computer system and ended up having to be manually checked anyway.

A government report that pointed out the system's shortcomings was published five years ago.

The UKBA spokesperson said that all tech implementations had their problems.

"We have to accept with any technology that there's always going to be times when it doesn't work," she said.

London's Heathrow terminals 1, 3, 4 and 5 are still using IRIS, as is Gatwick North, and the system will continue to be used there during the massive influx of travellers for the Olympics this summer.

There's been a lot of concern about IT systems that airports will be relying on to get visitors and competitors through border control for the games. Earlier this month, it was reported that Heathrow might not get facial recognition technology for non-EU travellers planned for all five of its terminals in time. And that implementation has been held up because UKBA is busy investigating the scandal that erupted when it was claimed that fingerprint checks were regularly abandoned to speed things up.

The UKBA spokeswoman said that the agency was working closely with officials in different countries to collect biometric data on individual competitors and their families ahead of the Olympics so they won't be held up, and added that there would be additional staff during the Games. ®

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