Osama Bin Laden and friends book a working holiday in New Zealand. Hypothetical as it may seem, this is one possible scenario that has got authorities local and offshore checking out, and implementing biometrics-based technologies. Once the stuff of sci-fi movies, biometrics is leaving Hollywood for the home PC, the family car, and initially the departure and arrival areas of our airports.
Australia has taken a lead already with the launch of its e-passport - electronic based passports with a microchip inside storing a digital photo of the passport holder, to ensure the person with the passport is who they say they are.
The airports in Melbourne and Sydney are also trialling SmartGate facial recognition software, which uses stored images of certain passport holders, to identify "trusted passengers" and allow them self-service processing through Customs.
New Zealand is not too far behind. The country announced its e-passport project in October and Auckland International Airport has released an RFI for its Customs self-service program.
Australia has announced an A$200 million four-year biometric program. The US Department of Homeland Security is spending US$10 billion on a "virtual border" program, to help a post-911 America use digital fingerprinting and photos to identify and track foreigners.
The UK parliament is busy debating the country's voluntary identity card scheme, which will use face, iris and fingerprint scans to combat identity fraud and boost security.
New Zealand is also involved in the Regional Movement Alert list - an APEC initiative which contains 380,000 identities of "people of concern".
There are many different types of security. Some are based on 'what we know', like passwords, pin numbers, or other knowledge about us. There is 'what we have' security, such as keys, passwords, electronic keys and tags, credit cards, smart cards and even chip implants.
Then there is biometrics - based on 'what we have'.
Fingerprint-based systems are the most common, with newer systems now able to tell whether the finger is still alive by testing an electrical discharge in the skin. Supposedly more accurate, though expensive, iris and retina scans are also catching on. Handprints are also used in US airports. Voice prints can also be taken. Then there are facial scanning and DNA-testing.
However, not all systems are perfect. In Malaysia, police are reportedly looking for a group of thieves who chopped off the fingers of an owner of a Mercedes Benz to get into the car's high-tech security system. A UK media report claims some people such as typists and labourers may have fingerprints that wear out. People of colour, the elderly and those with brown eyes may be mismatched under facial recognition-based systems.
The UK Home Office admits some "technical difficulties" with its systems, which is why the identity cards will use some 13 features.
University of Auckland researcher Peter Gutmann recently published an online paper explaining "Why Biometrics is not a Panancea". He reports fingerprint scans at London City Airport for its 1600 staff involved some 90,000 prints a day, but there were usually 1500 false alarms.
And when quizzed why the US Government did not use biometrics before 9/11, he says the former director of its Biometrics centre, Jim Wayman, was quoted as saying: "I had been working on it (biometrics) and knew its limitations and didn't find any value for the costs involved."
Gutmann says biometrics can only compare traits against a database of trait characteristics, and "no biometric system has ever caught a terrorist or serious criminal".
Furthermore, the researcher notes many failures in other fingerprint tests and facial testing. He claims the Sydney Airport SmartGate system couldn't detect when two Japanese tourists swapped passports.
He further quotes Wayman, who concluded biometrics "really isn't for security - it's for convenience".
State of play
But then, there are a host of factors that are limiting the implementation of biometrics technology to areas beyond airports and office buildings.
"It is being adopted much more slowly than was originally thought," notes Bob Hayward, Gartner's senior vice president and research fellow for Asia Pacific and Japan. There are questions, he says, on the technology's actual efficacy and accuracy, including "a lot of false positives" particularly on facial recognition.
"Probably the most reliable is the good old thumbprint which is one of the cheapest as well," he states. He says, however, there are other issues, like TCO particularly in technologies deployed in the field. Biometrics machines have to be visited "quite frequently" by maintenance engineers. "They are fully not as ruggedised yet for field situations as they probably should be. There is still a lot of work to be done," says Hayward.
Indeed, even the prospective users of biometrics accept the technology is not foolproof. Nonetheless, thanks mainly to the benefits of convenience, a number of organisations are pressing ahead with some biometrics-based projects.
New Zealand Customs and Auckland International Airport have issued an RFI for self-service border control kiosks that may spell the end of face-to-face checks by Customs staff for "trusted travellers".
The kiosks would automatically check who the travellers are, using software to match people against their passport photos, while ensuring they are not on any wanted lists.
These 'advanced passenger processing systems' also mean that with Customs knowing who is travelling to New Zealand before they board their craft, they can also be ready to interview that person upon arrival.
The system would also work in tandem with chip-based e-passports, also allowing faster "border process facilitation", removing the need for paper-based arrival and departure slips, and paying departure fees at the airport.
Customs information systems manager Peter Rosewarne says the technology "facilitates convenience" and declines to comment further, claiming his comments might affect the RFIs being sought.
David Philp, passports manager for the New Zealand Department of Internal Affairs, says a full deployment of e-passports is underway. His department began tests with facial recognition technology in 2002. It has created a database of faces taken from passport applications and found it "good enough in most cases for one-to-one matching".
From that, he has rolled out a watchlist, checking every application against this, helping his department stop the entry of unwanted travellers, or pick up fraudsters trying to get passports with different identities.
"We found it performs well enough for fraud detection and border control," he says.
The DIA is not planning to use iris and fingerprint testing, but believes these too would be very effective for border control.
Philp adds public key infrastructure is also used to ensure passport data is signed and locked and cannot be changed.
David Adamson, operations business manager at Auckland International Airport, sees biometrics as a 'greenfield' project offering much opportunity.
"The RFI asks for information and experience from suppliers. Biometrics is just part of it - the front of the technology - facial recognition, looking for iris and fingerprint scanning, though the government hasn't decided yet," he says.
Adamson says the airport is at the investigation stage, with much to be defined, and much based on overseas experience. "We are talking very closely with Australia as to where the opportunity lies. Theoretically, what we get working over the Tasman can have an easier migration to other areas."
In stressing the business case for it, Adamson notes the airport is treading on unproven ground, so international experience will be vital. "My personal view is that biometrics might take some of the rote work out of border processing, allowing customs to focus attention on certain groups rather than process people who don't present any problems."
Once upon a barcode
Terry Hartmann, former information technology manager for Passports Australia, says countries like Australia and New Zealand are adopting e-passports to bring them in line with a US directive for these to be issued before November 2006 in order for their citizens to travel visa-free to the United States.
Harmann, who is now director for homeland security and secure identification and biometrics for Unisys, says identity verification will have further uses in industries like banking and telecommunications. Most identities, he continues, are based on something you have, like a pin number or signature, but people forget pin numbers and signatures can be copied.
Face matching is more accurate than just looking at people, he continues, as people age or change their hairstyle and may not look like their photo. But biometric software looks at features like the nose and eyes which theoretically, do not change.
While Unisys does not produce biometric products itself, it has worked as a systems integrator, advising Australia, New Zealand and other governments on implementing biometric systems.
Hartmann stresses the growing accuracy of biometrics will act as a deterrent to fraudsters. "A lot of what you see in movies is a reality." He likens the state of biometrics to that of barcoding several years ago. "Costs are an issue but costs are decreasing as more and more people use biometrics," he states. "There are economies of scale and as the affordability of this technology becomes much greater, to a point where there is just a small increase in passport price, people don't mind as they are getting something more tangible.
"Barcoding is now everywhere and you don't think of it. Biometrics is going through the same stages and will be pervasive and transparent."