New biometric technology means one in the eye for airport queues
Beat the crowds at UK airports this summer by taking advantage of the latest biometric technology, says Emma Hartley
It’s been a bad week for the British airport queue. First, MPs said that standing in one could make you a “sitting duck” target for terrorists.
Then Kitty Ussher, Economic Secretary to the Treasury, warned that “Heathrow hassle” and long queues, particularly at passport control, were deterring business people from flying to London for meetings, which could have a long-term impact on the national economy.
Never has air travel been less glamorous for the British holidaymaker. The recent beefing-up of airport security, while understood and accepted with typical stoicism, has none the less turned foreign sojourns into an epic and tiring series of queues and checks.
But it needn’t be that way: there is a recently installed digital solution to at least half of the problem – the part encountered at the arrivals hall in the UK – available to those travellers classified as “low security risk”.
IRIS, an acronym for Iris Recognition Immigration System, is a service provided free at the point of contact by the Immigration Service, in which eight British airport terminals – four at Heathrow, two at Gatwick plus Birmingham and Manchester – have the facility to scan a human iris. As with a fingerprint, every iris is unique, even for identical twins.
The iris-scanning process takes about two minutes and no appointment is necessary; you just need to clear security at a participating airport, keep hold of your boarding card, and ask to be directed to the IRIS suite.
The particular infrared camera system used to power IRIS was developed by Sagem Défense Sécurité, a French company that has also developed iris-scanning applications for military use, but the basic technique involves taking simultaneous pictures on two light frequencies – ambient light and that from a light-emitting diode in the infrared region.
Paul Stanborough, managing director of rival outfit Aditech, explains: “It’s the red light that makes the picture of the iris unique. That’s the clever bit that generates the algorithm, coding the image and allowing it to be stored and found again.”
With the images of your irises held on a database, when you return to the UK you can skip the long queue at passport control and instead head for the IRIS gate. The queue here, by comparison, is determined entirely by the scheme’s uptake – only around 100,000 have enrolled so far, very few of whom will be travelling at any given time, so there is rarely any queue at all.
Moreover, the day when that line will be the same length as the others is a long way off, not least because access to the scheme is restricted to those deemed “low risk”.
Passing through the IRIS system involves simply gazing into a mirrored box at the recognition technology, which should spring the gate open within seconds.
IRIS users are and will remain almost entirely UK passport holders, according to Brodie Clark, the Government’s strategic director for border control. “It is possible, though, that if [non-British passport-holders] fly to the UK often on business and are not on any police watch-list, you may also be eligible,” he said.
Because the data is not stored on your passport but on the Immigration Service’s database, the scheme is unaffected by passport expiry. However, IRIS must be activated within six months of enrolling and is valid unused for two years but renewed every time it is used.
It is designed for frequent flyers, most probably business and solo travellers. It’s not without its pitfalls: if, for instance, someone takes a small child into the IRIS gate the technology will not work since it is designed for one person at a time. Similarly, a person wearing backpack-style hand luggage might create the impression of two people in the booth and disrupt the process, so all baggage must be put on the ground.
Until now, the system’s existence at passport control has remained a rather well-kept secret. The three other people who presented themselves for enrolment at Gatwick South Terminal during the 15 minutes or so I was there this week all said that they had heard about it in a roundabout way, through random browsing on the internet or from friends.
However, it is understood that the Government is about to launch a promotional drive to encourage greater use of the IRIS technology.
And the benefits of IRIS will be felt elsewhere in the airport, too. Since the time-saving benefits of iris-scanning are wiped out if you speed through immigration just to hang around at the baggage carousel waiting for your suitcase, the scheme indirectly encourages people to take less luggage when they travel, leading in turn to shorter check-in times.
Balm to the soul for Britain’s weary travellers.
This is a piece of blatant propaganda, placed by a PR company in the Telegraph, for money.
Today we learn that the DNA database has been accumulating records at one per minute, and that the government wants to be able to take your DNA on the street for dropping litter or not wearing a seat belt.