Biometrics technology allows you to be your own bar code

Before the end of the year, Canadian citizens will be able to pass through customs in the blink of an eye. Literally.

Canada’s eight largest airports plan to install a revamped customs processing system that will use iris scan biometrics to check people arriving on international flights.

The system is being developed by Unisys Corp. in Blue Bell, Pa., and is based on iris scanning technology from Iridian Technologies Inc. in Marlton, N.J. According to Iridian, this is the largest rollout to date of the technology.

“Air travel is increasing and customs checks are a process that involves a lot of customs inspectors,” said Sid Valo, vice-president of business and strategic development at the Greater Toronto Airports Authority. “The choice is: either you keep adding more people or you come up with a secure automated system to do the job.” Canada chose to spend US$10 million to roll out the system at the eight airports, according to Valo.

The iris-scanning technology uses a picture of the human eye to translate the 266 independent characteristics of the iris into a 512b digital code. The scan involves no physical contact, takes only seconds to process and requires a living, pulsing eye.

Passengers will be able to register into the system at Canada’s eight international airports starting next fall, Valo said. They will be issued cards that contain their biometric code on information strips.

When passing through Canadian customs, registered passengers can proceed directly to a kiosk, swipe their cards and have their iris scanned. The scan is instantly matched against a database maintained by the federal government and the passengers answer a few questions on a touch screen.

“You won’t have to show a passport, and the automated process should move much quicker than the current system,” Valo said.

The initial program will be limited to Canadians only, but Valo said it could be broadened to include U.S. citizens in coming years. He noted that the airports plan to build commercial uses for the cards as well, including the possibility of airline check-in.

McLean, Va.-based EyeTicket Corp. debuted such a system at the recent Comdex show in Las Vegas. The system scans a person’s iris, prints baggage tags and sends an electronic boarding pass with gate and flight time information to the passenger’s Windows CE handheld device.

“We’re looking to have passengers processed with this system in the next six months,” said Evan Smith, senior vice-president at EyeTicket.

Max Snijder, business development manager for Joh. Enschede Security Solutions BV in Haarlem, Netherlands, said his company, which prints money and passports for European nations, is looking to add iris scan codes to passports.

“We see this biometric [technology] having the proper security for border passing, immigration checks and social security systems,” Snijder said.

Richard Hunter, managing vice-president of e-metrics at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said iris scans have the benefit of being exact and nonintrusive.

“Yet there’s still the possibility someone can intercept that information postscan, much like what happens with credit card fraud,” Hunter said. “So it’s not bulletproof unless the system is bulletproof.”

He added that only time will tell how well humans react to having parts of their bodies transformed into a bar code.

“The world’s becoming less private as we gather ever more personal information, and we haven’t thought a whole lot of what it means to be in that environment,” he said.