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The eyes have it

  • Story Highlights
  • Free biometric scheme helps avoid lengthy immigration queues at UK airports
  • Only 100,000 people have taken advantage of this scheme
  • U.K. biometrics scheme uses iris recognition technology
  • In the U.S., biometrics program expanding from two to ten fingerprint scans
  • Next Article in World Business »
By Michelle Jana Chan
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- London Heathrow calls itself the world's busiest airport and anyone who's arrived at one of its four terminals is familiar with the tedium of security checks and immigration queues. But there's one smart short-cut: by registering your biometrics data ahead of arrival. That channels you into a separate queue, which is generally much shorter than the regular queue.

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Shorter queues with IRIS technology.

That's because only 100,000 people have so far taken advantage of this biometrics scheme, which was launched in January 2006. But it's straightforward, open to anyone to apply - and free!

The U.K.'s Border and Immigration Agency use biometrics technology called IRIS, or the Iris Recognition Immigration System, which works by matching the pattern of a passenger's eye with their personal identiy information in the agency's securely-stored database. New members of the scheme must have a photograph taken of their eye's iris pattern, known to be one of the most distinct external physical characteristics. That pattern is then converted into a digital code.

The IRIS scheme was launched in January 2006 and is now in place at London's Heathrow and Gatwick airports, as well as at Manchester and Birmingham. Registered passengers entering the United Kingdom at these airports skip the regular line to see an immigration officer. They instead head towards the automated barrier, where they look into a special camera. It takes a few seconds for iris recognition, after which the barrier lifts and the passenger enters the UK. There's no human contact at all and a passenger doesn't need to show their passport.

Registering for the scheme takes just a few minutes. Passengers need to take their passport and boarding card to one immigration staff in the departures area of participating airports.

An immigration official conducts a short interview of applicants regarding their immigration status and the frequency of their travels. Then, the official takes photographs of the passenger's face, and his or her iris patterns.

The advantages of iris recognition for frequent flyers is the efficiency of the process. The low uptake of the program means the automated immigration queue is often much shorter than the regular queue. As the scheme becomes more popular, there may be less incentive for enrolling in the program.

In the U.S., the equivalent biometrics system uses a digital portrait photograph and fingerprint scan to identify travelers. Currently, immigration officials at US borders take scan two index fingers but the Department of Homeland Security says they are expanding this to ten fingerprint scan, which they say will reduce misidentifications. Anyone entering a U.S. border must have their fingerprints scanned and there is no short-cut like in Britain. There are also plans being considered in the U.S. Congress for mandatory online pre-registration for travelers.

Travelers to the U.S. will encounter the ten-fingerprint scan scanners later this year in ten of the U.S.'s busiest airports: Boston Logan International Airport, Chicago O'Hare International Airport, Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Miami International Airport, John F Kennedy International Airport, Orlando International Airport, Philadelphia International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, and Washington Dulles International Airport. Long-term, the program will be rolled out at all air, sea and land ports of entry and at U.S. embassies and consulates. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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