Look Me in the Eye | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 13.02.2004
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Look Me in the Eye

Forget passport controls and get ready for some eye contact next time you enter Frankfurt airport. That’s where German Interior Minister Schily has kicked off the first high-tech biometric iris-scanning system.

Has it worked yet? Schily squints into the new iris scan system.

Has it worked yet? Schily squints into the new iris scan system.

The future arrived at Frankfurt airport this week with the introduction of a sophisticated digital camera at border controls capable of recognizing people by their irises.

Considered the most accurate system in biometrics -- the process of identifying people through their unique biological factors -- the iris scanning technology is meant to both speed up conventional passport controls as well as enhance existing security procedures.

"Biometrics doesn’t just make travelling safer, but also simpler," German Interior Minister Otto Schily said as he launched the new technology on Thursday. The system is expected to cut long waiting lines at airports on account of its partly automated border controls.

The minister added the iris scan would initially be in place as a pilot project for six months. It would help officials gather information about biometric procedures for their "border control routines", he said, as well as help Germany gain important insights for improving its domestic security.

The nuts and bolts

As a first step, passengers first have to have their iris photographed. For that they have to step up to a special high-resolution digital camera -- fitted with an infrared imager to illuminate the eye even behind glasses or lens -- for a picture.

Scannsystem zur Iriserkennung auf der CeBIT in Hannvoer

A woman has her iris scanned for computer recognition.

A computer will then process the digital images with the help of a software that will carefully map the iris in a spiral form working from the outside to the inside and record the unique spots and pigments. That data will then be transferred onto the passenger’s machine-readable passport.

Once they have their iris blueprint in the system, passengers in future will simply have to feed in their machine-readable passports, glance at the camera, and once the iris scan matches the passport data, the exit doors will automatically swing open. The entire procedure is expected to last 20 seconds.

Before submitting to the iris scan for the first time, passengers have to agree to a passport check by border guards and sign a data security document. The offer is only meant for EU citizens aged 18 and above.

Iris scan the most accurate

Experts believe the iris scan remains the most accurate biometric process, which involves automated identification of one’s identity using physiological clues such as scanning an iris or facial features, hand or fingerprint recognition or handwriting analysis, and matching that information with a database.

Since iris patterns are extremely complex, with more than 200 unique spots, they are believed to be the most reliable distinguishing feature of a person and thus easy to capture and compare with a database.

Experts say the iris scan is also superior to fingerprint-recognition systems. That’s because greasy, dirty or peeling skin on the finger can easily distort fingerprint-recognition, a factor that plays no role in the case of iris-recognition.

Furthermore, the iris doesn’t just betray the identity of the passenger, but can also tell much about his or her possible drug and alcohol consumption.

U.S. leads the way in biometric security

Biometrics, useful in fighting document and credit card fraud, first took off as a global industry after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

The U.S. has been the frontrunner, with Washington believed to be spending $8 billion on biometric security, which involves checking biometric information against terrorist watch lists and police databases.

Iriserkennung: biometriegestützte Grenzkontrolle am Frankfurter Flughafen

A new sign at Frankfurt airport informs passengers about the automated passport control.

In January, the U.S. introduced fingerprint recognition systems for incoming travelers requiring a visa and iris scans and facial-recognition systems are expected to follow. The U.S. has also urged other countries to follow suit and upgrade security procedures. New U.S. laws require all passports of visitors issued after October 26, 2004 to carry biometric features if the traveler is to enter without a visa.

The European Parliament is also considering measures to replace all traditional European passports by a new biometric version by 2005. In addition it’s mulling proposals to introduce biometric data on visas and residence permits of third country nationals residing in the EU as a means to counter illegal immigration.

Concerns of data security

However biometric technology has its share of critics. It’s been slammed by human rights and civil liberties groups, who have complained that the storage of such information could be subject to abuse and could be used to record people's movements. Experts have also questioned the efficiency of the technology and said it could leave millions of people vulnerable to a mistaken identity.

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