Faces for border security, says airline body

Face recognition looks like becoming the international method of choice for border identification, but it probably won't be the kind that's been tested by New Zealand's Customs department.

Face recognition looks like becoming the international method of choice for border identification, but it probably won’t be the kind that’s been tested by New Zealand’s Customs department.

From October 2004 a biometric identifier will be required in the passports of New Zealand travellers to the US if they wish to continue to enter the country without a visa.

The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act, passed by the US government last year, requires that the passport of any Visa Waiver Programme traveller issued after October 26, 2004 must contain a biometric identifier that meets standards set by the International Civil Aeronautics Organisation (ICAO).

New Zealand is one of the 28 states that subscribe to the programme.

ICAO has decided that some form of face recognition provides the best balance of accuracy and convenience, so New Zealand Customs’ trials of the technology have been going down the right path. Customs CIO Peter Rosewarne has always said, however, that the emphasis in the trial is on the procedures behind the technology, and these will work equally well with any biometric.

Face recognition will be the least disruptive choice, says Unisys security specialist Ed Schaffner (pictured), as all passengers have head-and-shoulders photographs in their passports already.

Keeping passports unchanged would demand direct analysis of photos for comparison with a real-time camera image of the passenger’s face, rather than using the image in advance to generate a “template”, a short bit-string that would have to be newly stored on the passport. (Most passports, including those issued to New Zealand citizens, have two images, one visible and one only detectable under ultraviolet light.)

The template approach, explored by NZ Customs, works. But apart from requiring a new code on the passport, it would commit all countries to a common encoding, says Schaffner, which this would interfere with governments’ rights to make an impartial decision.

Schaffner was visiting New Zealand last week as part of a multi-country tour aimed at developing a coordinated approach. Such a collaboration, he says, should still leave any country as free as possible to take its own approach to identification.

Some countries will want to tie such identification into various databases recording personal information about people entering or leaving the country. Differences in privacy legislation mean such actions may be a “political challenge” in some countries, says Schaffner.

Schaffner was accompanied by a Unisys port and cargo security specialist, Scott Glover, formerly with the US coastguard service. Glover says in maritime security, technology can come to the aid of border control in mapping the supply chain of imported goods to eliminate gaps where suspicious goods such as arms, or even people, could have been smuggled into containers. The integrity of containers can be digitally protected with smart seals and intrusion detection. GPS can track the container at every moment, Glover says, but a lot of the precautions are a matter of applying business rules about who is allowed to be where and at what times. “Intelligent” cameras can reduce the workload by sending an image to security staff only when they see exceptional behaviour.

A number of test programmes for border control are going on throughout the world, as the US in particular tightens up on border control. It fears the entry of terrorists or goods which could help them launch an attack (see box, below left). International cooperation is important in getting such protective measures up quickly, says Schaffner.

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