Border control, day 1

Day one of the Global Border Control Technology Summit here in London. There’s a large, international turnout reflecting the importance of the topic of border control and related identity systems. It’s stated theme is to look at…:

… resolving the technological and logistical challenges in the global deployment of biometrics for travel documents, border control and national identity systems

My interest is the broad topic of identity systems and related information – and primarily to hear real world experiences of what is happening (and what is succeeding and – equally importantly – failing). In particular, with relation to the early adoption of large scale biometrics – and what does and doesn’t work in practice in both identity authentication terms and associated data sharing in risk assessment following on from such authentication.

The Chairman, Clive Reedman, makes the point in his opening address that when we talk about “borders” we do not just mean national frontiers: a border is better considered as any point where some kind of access control and authentication is required. This is the model used for example to gain access to business offices, where entry is always challenged. But in the public sector – from hospitals, where access is rarely controlled, through to transit systems, where only valid payment is checked for – exist many examples that, given recent events in London and elsewhere, might need to be reconsidered.

All of which are valid points. But authentication of identity is not proof of someone’s intentions: improving our identity management tools is only one part of the work we need to be doing. I worry sometimes that some see authentication in itself as the end goal, rather than as a contributory part of a broader citizen safety initiative. Today was a good chance to hear firsthand from some of the leading projects taking place around the world and to consider what lessons we can learn from them. I’ll briefly narrate some of the presentations to highlight key content and messages.

Bernard Herdan, Chief Executive of the UK Passport Agency emphasised the point that there is no “silver bullet” for the problems of identity and border control. The UK Passport Agency has conducted pilots using facial recognition with useful results, finding duplicates across their various systems: essentially people claiming more than one identity. The media-quoted high approval ratings of ID systems however turns out to be a survey taken only amongst those who participated in the face, iris and fingerprint pilot. So perhaps it reflects the self-selecting nature of many of those who took part rather than the consensus of the general population.

The proposed UK e-Passport will be contactless, but designed to be used in close proximity to passport readers. There is little discussion of whether the design is intended to respond only to legitimate and authorised passport readers rather than any reader (see my discussion of the 7 Laws of Identity earlier in these blogs). The issuance process for new forms of ID is currently a big focus and includes both public and private database matching – although Bernard comments that it’s easer for them to work with private sector databases than other public sector databases. Fingerprints are due to be included in all Visas by 2008 (I’m assuming in some form of encrypted form). They are also looking at outsourcing of biometric capture given the amount of work involved, which raises huge challenges in ensuring the end to end integrity of the proposals: social engineering is always going to be one of the weakest links in these systems, as we saw with the driving licence agency officials bribed with just $100 in the US to provide some of the 9/11 terrorists with fake “ID”. One interesting point is made: if I understood correctly the Passport Agency intends to issue an ID card with every UK passport anyway even if the ID Card Bill does not go ahead. Which does raise some interesting questions about the current ID Card debate.

Jim Williams, Director, US-VISIT Program, US Department of Homeland Security talked about the generally high level of acceptance of the new entry controls that the US has implemented, pointing out that they actually were in process before 9/11. One of the likely reasons for such acceptance is that processing time has gone down at entry points – something I’ve noticed during my last few US visits. In addition, over 700 criminals have been intercepted at the point of entry through the use of biometrics. They are now looking at land borders and the idea of RFID tags in cars at border crossings to automate the process – the ultimate ideal being for legitimate drivers to be able to go through at normal driving speed. The idea would then also be extensible to cover say all passengers on a bus. This seems to imply both some form of extended reach RFID technology as well as raising questions about how you know whether the travellers themselves are really present as opposed to just their travel documentation. I’m not sure aspirations and technology (let alone security and privacy) are quite yet in sync in some of these areas.

The US approach to RFID is hinged on a unique identifier rather than containing any sensitive data: the unique identifier provides a link to an index to a database. They are very aware of the need to include nothing sensitive on the device itself. They are also looking at the potential for an international registered traveller programme for perceived low risk groups (an idea a colleague of mine first proposed some years ago and which now seems to have more widespread acceptance). They have also been conducting e-passport tests between the US and Australia to find out the practical real world experiences of using many of these new technologies and travel documents.

Raymond Wong, Assistant Director of Immigration (Information Systems), Department of Immigration, Hong Kong (People’s Republic of China) talked about how they have had an ID Card since 1949. They are now even thinking about a chip in birth certificates to protect their integrity and value given how much of a key role birth documents often play in the process of first asserting your identity. Hong Kong has some 181 million passenger movements a year and although the workload has doubled, staffing has remained largely static due to the way they have implemented their new systems. They offer the traveller the choice of an e-channel (fully automated) or manual channels (for those concerned about privacy or who would rather deal face to face with a human rather than a machine). Of course, even the e-channel is overseen by officers, who can provide a high quality supervisory function and oversight of travellers.

Hong Kong has also applied new methods of control on the road network, with motorists now able to go through borders using their thumb print combined with automated vehicle recognition. This is also being combined with facial recognition. Some of the problems they have encountered are with dry fingers, wet fingers and chipped fingers – which can cause problems with readers, but the numbers have not proved so significant as to cause major issues. Key to facial recognition success is the combination of face position, lighting and sunglasses (another area where ICAO (the International Civil Aviation Organization) has been active in developing standards). China needed to change its laws to allow for immigration checks to be undertaken by machine not human. A standard system is now in place that scans all passports, including the traveller’s photo, into their systems in order to undertake facial recognition checks of multiple identities – realising some of the benefits foreseen by the ICAO when they first set out the standards for facial biometrics in passports (passport photos to you and me).

Lots to think about here – and a good day to come tomorrow, followed by a workshop. I’ll consider some of the broader themes and lessons to be drawn after the event concludes on Wednesday.


This blog post originally appeared when I hosted NTOUK on SimpleBlog. It’s one of several I’m retrieving and posting here to bring together my posts in one place. The content and date shown for this post replicates the original. Many links are, inevitably, broken: where I can, I’ll substitute ones that work, particularly where the Internet Archive Wayback Machine has captured the content originally linked to.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.