December 6, 2006 9:54 AM PST

Heathrow testing biometric security checks

Biometric fingerprint and iris scans will be used for screening air passengers on Emirates and Cathay Pacific Airways flights to and from Dubai and Hong Kong as part of a trial at London's Heathrow Airport.

The miSense trial, which runs until the end of January 2007, will be voluntary and aims to enroll 2,000 passengers using Emirates and Cathay Pacific at Heathrow's Terminal 3. MiSense will test basic and advanced biometric checks during the trial.

Fingerprint scanner

The airport authorities and the U.K. government claim the system will improve security and border controls by allowing passengers to bypass long queues at security and immigration--though in reality, the passenger must still pass through the main manual security check and X-ray airport bottleneck even after the automated biometric check.

Speaking at the Heathrow launch Wednesday, immigration minister Liam Byrne said biometric screening will make it "much harder for people to get into the country illegally." He dismissed civil liberties concerns about the increasing collection and use of biometric data.

He said: "If you have got nothing to hide, what are you worried about? You are not only securing borders, but helping people save time when they are traveling. This kind of technology will be popular."

Tony Douglas, CEO of BAA Heathrow, claimed technology such as biometrics will increasingly be used for national security and to improve the passenger experience.

"Technology will ultimately be part of the solution," Douglas said. "Technology will play a much bigger part in the way we travel in the future."

The basic security screening requires the passenger to scan their passport and right index finger at a self-service check-in kiosk before getting a boarding card. The passenger's fingerprint is then checked again at automatic barriers before security and at the boarding gate. But a visual check is still required before boarding the plane to ensure the person matches the photo on the passport.

The more advanced screening requires the passenger to undergo a manual enrollment at the airport where their 10 fingerprints, two irises and face are scanned and the scans stored in a database. This data is then uploaded onto a smart card that can be used by the passenger on any future journeys.

Using the smart card, the passenger checks in as normal, undergoes an automatic fingerprint check before entering security and again at the boarding gate to verify their identity. Arriving at immigration in Heathrow, Dubai or Hong Kong, the passenger scans the smart card at an automatic gate and then scans a fingerprint. If the two match, the barrier opens and allows them straight through.

One of the stated aims of the trial is to test the feasibility of advanced passenger screening in the U.K. This means that once a passenger has been biometrically identified at check-in, his or her details are checked against various government, intelligence and immigration databases and "watch lists" before the passenger is allowed to board the plane. This system is already extensively used in Australia and New Zealand.

The project is being run in conjunction with the airport authorities and immigration services in Dubai, Hong Kong and the U.K., and Emirates and Cathay Pacific airlines. A consortium of technology companies, including Accenture, IER, Raytheon Systems, Sagem Defense Securite and SITA, has provided the technology for the trial.

No cost has been put on the project, but all the technology companies are funding their own involvement.

Heathrow is also taking part in the government's Project Iris trials in its Terminals 2 and 4, which use automatic iris recognition technology to speed up immigration checks for frequent fliers. That is part of the wider e-borders program for the advanced screening of travelers arriving and departing at all the U.K.'s major air, rail and sea ports by the end of 2010.

Andy McCue of Silicon.com reported from London.

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