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Thursday, 21 February, 2002, 14:41 GMT
Experts check passport changes
airport check-in, PA
Biometric identity checks could be done at check-in desks
Experts have expressed doubts that passports holding biometric information such as fingerprints could significantly improve security.

Failings in the way that passports are issued could easily wipe out any gains made by the introduction of new technologies, they warn.

The public may be reluctant to adopt some technologies because of fears about loss of civil liberties and government monitoring.

Airlines and airports may also prove resistant if the new technologies produce huge queues or significantly increase the time it takes passengers to check-in or board their plane.

Passport plan

This week the UK Passport Office said that within four years passports of British citizens could be fitted with computer chips that contain information about their fingerprint, iris pattern, hand geometry or voice print.

But Graham Titterington, a senior analyst at research firm Ovum who has written a report about biometrics, said technology should not be seen as a panacea for the problems afflicting the passport issuing process now.

"The fact that the September 11 people were able to forge Belgian passports shows the weaknesses in the system," he said.

The Belgian police estimate that up to 19,050 blank Belgian passports have gone missing or been stolen since 1990.

They keep chopping and changing the precise reasons for introducing the scheme

Mark Littlewood, Liberty

"When moving to electronic passports the problem is making sure they are correctly issued in the first place," said Mr Titterington. "The technology in itself does not solve the problem that the person they give it to in the first place is not who they say they are."

However, he said adding computer chips to travel documents could make it much harder to produce fakes.

Hands and eyes

Any plan to boost the amount of information passports contain about travellers could be delayed because there is no international agreed standards on which biometric measure to use or what counts as good quality information.

Tony Mansfield, a biometric expert from the National Physical Laboratory, said it was entirely possible that separate nations could choose different biometrics to identify their citizens.

"If you wanted to start putting biometrics on your passports and you chooses iris patterns and another country picks hand geometry there could be some real incompatibilities," said Mr Mansfield.

He counselled the UK Passport Office to think carefully about what it wants to achieve because the most useful biometric measure will change depending on whether it wants to reduce waiting times, speed up check-in or improve security.

asylum seeker's ID card, PA
Some asylum seekers already carry ID cards fitted with computer chips
"These are all different applications and a solution that works for one may not work for another," he said.

Rights watchdog Liberty has expressed reservations about the plan to update passports and why it was being proposed.

"It's worrying that they also keep chopping and changing the precise reasons for introducing the scheme," said Mark Littlewood of Liberty. "Last April, they were saying it was to speed up check-ins at airports, then after September 11 it was to fight terrorism and now it's to help prevent identity fraud."

A spokesman for the UK Passport Office said that it gave a commitment to investigate ways of updating passports and supplementing photographs in the business plan it published last year.

But he said no decisions had been taken on when the changes might be introduced or which technologies might be used.

Iris scanning is already in use at Heathrow and Schipol airports to speed the journeys of frequent flyers. However, the trial is being operated by airlines and does not involve changes to passports.

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