Passport to the biometric era

SHOPPERS in the Capital have been given the chance to try out futuristic technology soon to be introduced in new passports.

A roadshow hosted by the Passport Office to allow the public to test biometric technology visited the Gyle Centre yesterday.

Scores of passers-by stopped to chat with Home Office Minister Andy Burnham and have their details added to a temporary database, to be deleted after the roadshow leaves Edinburgh.

The new ePassports, which will be available from early next year, will include facial recognition technology, which checks distances between a person's eyes, nose and mouth to give their unique measurements.

From next October, anyone travelling to the United States with a new passport will need a chip in their passport containing facial recognition information to enter the country without a visa.

And fingerprint technology will be added in 2009, with the option of iris recognition still being discussed in Parliament.

The exhibition was prompted by the new rules for passport photographs, which came into force today.

Passport pictures must now be on a plain white background and be a close-up of head and shoulders, covering around 65 to 75 per cent of the image.

Mr Burnham said: "There has been growing talk about biometric technology. People are beginning to have an idea about it, but they are not clear on what the changes are going to be.

"It all sounds very futuristic and Big Brother and people think the eye scan is invasive, but when people go through the experience, they find it is quite reassuring."

A trial of 10,000 people was carried out in Glasgow last year.

Mr Burnham said that the technology would be difficult for forgers to copy, reducing illegal immigration into the UK.

"I'm not going to say it would be impossible to forge, because that would be tempting fate, but it is extremely secure," he said.

Protesters from "No2ID Scotland" lobbied Mr Burnham at the Gyle, claiming the technology, which would also be used in the controversial ID cards to be decided on in Parliament next month, is unreliable and intrusive.

Mr Burnham added: "We have made no bones about it that the biometric ID technology should be extended from passports to everyday life.

"There are people who disagree with that, but my argument would be that security will be better with biometric ID."

Susan O'Hara, a nurse from Duddingston, said: "I think it's a great idea. It's not a big deal unless you've got something to hide and the process seems very simple."

The cost of the new biometric passports, which will be available to 50 per cent of applicants when they are launched in February, and rolled out to all new passports by July, has not been decided.

• HOVERING warily about the stand at the Gyle centre, shoppers eyed up for the first time biometric equipment soon to be used to identify them to the authorities.

But passport staff stressed the database would be wiped once the team leave Edinburgh.

The process itself is quick, painless and really quite fun. First of all, I had to look into a metal box and move my head so my pupils were covered by green dots on a screen.

The machine whirred a little, red lights glowed and my irises were scanned.

I looked into the machine again and seconds later the screen flashed up with my name. Instant recognition.

I registered my fingerprints by placing them on a glass panel. Although no ink is involved, black prints of my fingers appeared on the screen. Again, the computer knew who I was.

Finally came the facial recognition software. My picture was taken and scanned to display my unique facial measurements.

The chip inside the new passport didn't look big enough to hold so much information - but soon I will have to rely on it to let me into the country.

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