Canada to Use Iris Scans for Customs IDs

This 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 roll-out to date of the technology.

“Air travel is increasing, and customs checks are a process that involves a lot of customs inspectors,” says 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 $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 512-byte 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 says. They will be issued cards that contain their biometric code on information strips.

When passing through Canadian customs, a registered passenger can proceed directly to a kiosk, swipe his card and have his iris scanned. The scan is instantly matched against a database maintained by the Canadian government, and the passenger answers 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 says.

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