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Biometrics - great hope for world security or triumph for Big Brother?



British police ready to link up to databases of US intelligence

Owen Bowcott in Morgantown, West Virginia
Friday June 18, 2004
The Guardian


British police will almost certainly be given access in the near future to US intelligence databases containing DNA samples, fingerprints and digital images of thousands of foreign nationals seized around the world by the US as terror suspects.

As the war on terror increasingly comes to rely on biometric technology - the use of physical characteristics unique to individuals such as iris pattern, DNA and fingerprints to verify identify - western police and intelligence agencies are drawing up plans for sophisticated biometric databases which would allow them to share sensitive information.

"The only way to trace a terrorist is through biometrics," Mike Kirkpatrick, assistant director of the FBI's criminal justice services division, told a conference for European firms selling biometric security measures yesterday. "[Traditional] passports are pretty damn meaningless."

The FBI, which has more than 75m fingerprints on its criminal and civil computer records, is adding biometric details from suspects detained in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

"We are obtaining DNA from terrorists around the world as we encounter them," Mr Kirkpatrick said. "We have set up a terrorist screening centre. In Iraq, the high value detainees are having DNA samples, fingerprints and digital photographs taken. The numbers involved are in the thousands. We are doing it wherever it's appropriate, wherever there's a threat to the USA."

Canada, he told the conference in Morgantown, West Virginia, had already been given direct electronic access to such FBI databases. "We are having discussions with the UK, through Pito [the Police Information Technology Organisation], about whether they should have [direct] access to our systems ... I would hope mutual exchanges [of information online] will happen in the next few years. It's in everyone's interest that we have a good sharing mechanism."

Already, the first practical results of coordinated database programmes and reinforced border controls are coming on stream. They all rely heavily on biometric components. In Britain, the passport agency has begun trials to examine what type of biometric details the next generation of travel documents will contain.

The immigration service is already fingerprinting visa applicants in Sri Lanka and east Africa as well as asylum seekers who arrive in the UK. The fingerprints are checked against a computer database called Eurodac - based in Luxembourg and developed by a British company, Steria Ltd - to see if there have been previous applications for asylum in any other EU country. If so, the asylum seeker may be deported.

The main UK police computer storing fingerprints, called Nafis, is also due to be replaced soon by a system codenamed Ident1. Two US firms, Lockheed Martin and Northrup Gruman, are bidding for the contract that is likely to be decided this autumn. The new system will record finger and palm prints and also provide a platform for other biometric measures.

Last night, civil liberties campaigners voiced concerns about governments sharing biometric data through international databases. "There is now a total obsession with this technology as a way of combatting anything and everything and it's a fallacy," said Barry Hugill of Liberty. "Once you begin to compile massive databases it's a matter of common sense that you are going to get the most horrendous mix-ups, with the wrong people being accused and the the wrong information being shared around the world."

British law enforcement and intelligence agencies believe that access to the US databases will streamline international cooperation between police forces and make it much harder for terror suspects known to one country to enter another. The data would be used mainly to vet people travelling to the UK, either at the point where they apply for visas or when they reach a British airport or port.

Ian Brown, director of the Foundation for Information Policy Research said: "British police are very much moving towards a model in which they obtain as much data, biometric or otherwise, on individuals and share it as widely as possible. The danger is that information about British citizens will be shared with the Americans and there are very few safeguards on how this can be used by the US authorities who have a very different idea to privacy and data protection from us."

But the enthusiasm for biometric security systems as a means of foiling future terrorist atrocities - bolstered by demands for tighter controls over illegal immigration - is stimulating a boom in technology firms that specialise in screening large numbers of people and verifying individual identities.

The global market in biometric products is expected to swell from being worth around $1bn now to more than $4.5bn in four years, according to Raj Nanavati of the International Biometric Group.

The industry has not yet devised sufficiently reliable solutions to satisfy the expectations raised, post-9/11, in Washington, London and Brussels. But a cluster of federal agencies and academic expertise in West Virginia is creating a focus for such pioneering businesses.

The state, which is home to the FBI's fingerprint database and US defence department (DoD) biometrics research laboratories, is also drawing in British firms and security experts. Officers from Pito liaise closely with the FBI and a former member of British intelligence-gathering community is on the board of the National Biometric Security Project in Morgantown. A British embassy trade official monitored this week's conference.

Inter-communicating databases are increasingly being seen as the essential next step as law enforcement agencies work out how to handle the biometric data they are gathering. "We are now having systems put in place which can cross check," Dr Michael Yura, the head of the National Biometric Security Project.

Sam Cava, director of the DoD's Biometrics Fusion Centre, also in Clarksburg, West Virginia, deplored the segregation of personal records. "It doesn't do to have 50 systems that don't cooperate," he said.

For visitors to the United States, the most visible change is the US-Visit security programme which will require foreign visitors to have their two index finger prints recorded on an electronic scanner and a digital photograph taken.

The department of homeland security, which operates the system, claims that since its inception 500 people on the FBI's wanted lists have been detained. It is not clear how many were detected by having their fingerprints or pictures taken.

"The US Visit programme wants to tap in to databases on foreign soil," said Dr Edwin Rood, director of the Biometric Knowledge Centre at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

The first line of defence for the US will be consulates abroad where visa applicants will be subjected to biometric tests. The contract for US-Visit has temporarily been suspended following a row in Congress over the fact that the company heading the consortium, Accenture, is based in the tax haven of Bermuda. The value of the contract over 10 years has been estimated at $10bn (5.9bn).

A similar border control system to US-Visit is being contemplated by the EU. Nicknamed Schengen Two, it was the main subject of debate at an EU summit in Dublin this week. It is expected to incorporate biometric measurements in new passports which would have an embedded computer chip.

Eyes have it

Californian biometric company IriTech Inc offers an iris-scanning programme to detect drug use. By analysing the pupil's reaction to a flash of light, the programme claims, it can "track the acute irregularities of the nervous system". Used by probation services to monitor the presence of drugs in the body.

3D facial recognition is being championed as a means of overcoming the problems experienced by computer analysis of faces. Recognition Sciences claims it can assemble a three-dimensional image of a suspect given just two photographs from different angles.

"It can match a million images a second," claims Jim O'Malley, its president. "It's ideal for tracking terrorist suspects and matching them to a watch list." Other researchers are investigating the possibility of producing a secure 3D image for a passport, taken by a camera rotating 360 degrees around each applicant.

Fears that al-Qaida may assemble a lorry bomb in the US have stimulated investigation into the possibility of monitoring lorry drivers carrying heavy or hazardous loads. A palm scanner could be embedded into a gear stick so approved drivers could be regularly assured.

In Britain, a company called Unilink is putting fingerprint scanning systems into an immigration detention centre near Heathrow to control visits.

Both the UK and US are introducing frequent flyer programmes which will allow participants to bypass check-in delays by registering their biometric details.