Thursday, 18 June 2009

Airport's biometric ID scheme glitches

Manchester Airport is at the vanguard of biometric ID trials for schemes that are planned for rolling out across the country. The programmes have been beset with technical hitches and staff opposition. The airport trialled the UK’s first biometric access control portal for staff, using iris recognition to monitor and control access to restricted areas. The biometric identity cards, called the Critical Worker Identity Card (CWIC) scheme, were to be compulsory for all staff at Manchester and London City Airports. Pilots warned that they would not co-operate with the trial. The ID scheme was quietly scaled down earlier this month, abandoned for existing employees, with only new staff expected to apply for an ID card.

Biometric face recognition for passengers, with five machines at Terminal 1 targeting so called ‘high risk’ passengers, have also been beset with problems. Initially, the kit was set so that an 80 per cent likeness with passengers’ digital passports. In the Times, David Leppard reported that leaked information from a member of staff claimed the machines were throwing up so many false negatives, a 70 per cent error rate, that long queues were developing, so the machines were recalibrated to a 30 per cent likeness. Ron Jenkins of Glasgow University, a leading expert was of the opinion that this would render the machines so ineffective as to be unable to distinguish between UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown and actor Mel Gibson, or between Osama Bin Laden and actor Winona Ryder. So the enhanced security was actually laxer, and slowed down passenger flow through the airport instead of speeding it up. The UK Border Agency categorically denied that the machines had been recalibrated.

It could be worse, in the US, 10 airports including Dallas Fort-Worth and McCarran, are trialling ‘whole body imaging’ machines that reveal what is underneath passengers’ clothes. After being criticised for being too revealing apparently a ’modesty filter’ has been fitted, and passengers, who are randomly selected for the procedure, can opt for a ‘good old-fashioned pat down’ by security staff instead.

Its all too intrusive and technology driven, and forgetting that human observation and intervention is vital to averting genuine security risks, such as the failed car bomb attempt at Glasgow Airport and the so called ‘shoe bomber’ who was subdued and restrained by passengers.

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