UK: Face scans for air passengers to begin in UK this summer - Officials say automatic screening more accurate than checks by humans

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Article in the Guardian (link)

Report that the UK Border Agency is to introduce facial scans at airports to compare with "the image.. on the computer chip in their biometric passports" by using facial recognition technology at automated unmanned gates. A machine would accept or reject the match.

Finger-printing, iris and face scans, and DNA taken from people are biometrics giving the state a unique identifier for an individual. With varying degrees of accuracy - none is perfect - these biometrics can be used for verification ("one-to-one", the person from whom the biometric is taken matches that on the passport chip) or identification ("one-to-many", where the person's biometric is checked against the whole database and watch-lists).

The "facial image" held on the chip of recently issued EU passports simply contains a digitised copy of the normal passport picture, this is not a biometric. To try and match this "facial image" with a "facial scan" (plotting 1,840 unique features on a person's face) is quite reliable - but will make errors - for "one-one" checks but not at all reliable for "one-to-many".

As a report from the UK's National Audit Office (NAO, pdf) concluded: "current facial recognition technology is not reliable enough to enable the automated checking of applications against the full database of existing passport holders". It also found that the "chips" in ten-year passports only have a guaranteed lifetime of two years and "there are technical concerns that facial features can change a great deal over a decade... the software may fail to find matches where it should." Moreover, consultants for the NAO report concluded that facial recognition technology: "is not sufficiently reliable to enable fully automated searches even in relatively small databases, and performance is known to decline as database size increases."

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments:

"The UK and other EU governments refer to the digitised passport photo as a biometric when it is not for ideological reasons - to get us used to the idea that they already have one of our "biometrics" so why should we not give them another - our fingerprints.

The process however is very different. In most cases the passport picture is simply submitted by post or at an office whereas the compulsory taking of fingerprints requires the physical presence of the person at an "enrolment centre" where they have to prove "they are who they are"."

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