Biometrics faces terrorist threat

The US terrorist attacks last month have led to increased interest in biometrics as the authorities try to provide stronger...

The US terrorist attacks last month have led to increased interest in biometrics as the authorities try to provide stronger security at airports and other public places.

In the US, aeronautics company Lockheed-Martin has implemented a system based on technology from biometrics provider KeyWare that uses facial and fingerprint recognition for immigration control.

The system checks the fingerprint and facial features of people entering the country against a criminal database.

The US embarked on a £35m biometrics project known as Human ID at a Distance following the Khobar Towers bombing in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia in 1996. Nineteen people were killed when terrorists detonated a bomb outside the facility housing US and allied forces supporting the coalition air operation over Iraq.

A large-scale trial was conducted during SuperBowl 2000 in Atlanta following terrorist threats, in which more than a 100,000 people were monitored.

Facial recognition technologies are also being deployed in the UK. Well-publicised trials of a CCTV based system in the London borough of Newham have reduced street crimes by a third, police and the local council said.

According to the Department of Transport, the British Airports Authority is also trailing systems that photograph individuals and automatically match them against databases of criminal suspects.

Smartcard technology is another way of boosting security when used in conjunction with biometric security measures.

Dan Cunningham, chairman of the Smart Card Alliance market research committee looking into the use of smartcards in the US, said that they could be used to enforce airport security.

"Security personnel could be issued with smartcard ID and use it when reporting to work," he said. The card's chip would hold a facial recognition scan of the cardholder. Existing airport video cameras could even be used to create the scan.

But the large-scale deployment of electronic security systems raises human rights and data protection issues.

Rupert Battcock, an IT lawyer at Nabarro Nathanson, doubted that travellers would even be aware of biometrics in action. "This is a type of closed-circuit TV and the code of practice and laws concerning how these systems can be used are well defined."

Biometrics solutions applied to fighting terrorisms might not come under the Data Protection Act, added Battcock.

There is no doubt that biometrics will be used increasingly in the fight for security, but most experts agree that there will be problems ahead.

No organisation can yet claim that its systems can easily process the volume of traffic generated by an airport without serious changes to how travellers move through terminals and how they board aircraft.

At Heathrow alone, 65 million passengers and staff pass through the four terminals. It would take millions of pounds of investment, lengthy trials and passenger cooperation to test such a system.

Even so, there is no guarantee that even with 95% accuracy, the huge number of false alerts would diminish. Suspects could still slip through the net.

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