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UK Border Agency Scraps £9m Airport Iris Scanners

Max 'Beast from the East' Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope. If you find him looking lost on the streets of London, feed him coffee and sugar.

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The widely criticized IRIS terminals will disappear from Birmingham and Manchester airports; the rest will follow

Iris Recognition Immigration System (aptly abbreviated IRIS) terminals have closed at Birmingham and Manchester airports, with Heathrow and Gatwick set to abandon the scheme after the London 2012 Olympics.

As the support contract for IRIS is due to come to an end in March 2011, the scheme operated by Morpho (Sagem until 2010) will be axed in favour of chipped ePassports and e-gates using facial recognition technology.

Although registration is no longer available, those already registered will be able to use IRIS until the terminals are gone.

The public eye

IRIS was officially launched in 2006 to speed up the immigration control at UK’s busiest airports, and help frequent travellers beat the queues. It uses the unique pattern of the coloured part of the eye to identify people passing through the border. After initial registration, users are directed to a special camera at the IRIS barrier in the immigration arrival hall, which takes a picture of the eye and compares it against a government database.

The scheme has faced constant criticism since it was introduced. Many users complained that instead of saving time, going though IRIS scanner could actually take longer than traditional passport control. Even though each human has a unique iris pattern, the eye goes through physiological changes and needs to be re-scanned every couple of years for the system to work.

As of April 2011, the government has spent more than £9 million on the system. Conservative peer Lord Henley has called it a “valuable test bed for the next generation of automation”.

Registration for IRIS is no longer available, and the enrolment rooms at Heathrow, Gatwick, Birmingham and Manchester airports have been closed. However, the UK Border Agency website states that those who managed to register will still be able to use IRIS until after the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. There are currently 385,000 passengers on the IRIS database.

IRIS is currently available at the following UK airports: Heathrow terminals one, three, four and five, and Gatwick North.

UK or EEA nationals with a chipped passport can continue to cross the UK border by using automated ePassport gates. The new facial recognition e-gates that will take over from iris scanners to speed up immigration are currently being installed in 15 airport terminals.

ePassport gates will use facial recognition technology to compare faces of UK and EEA passengers to images held in their biometric passports in addition to biographical and security checks.

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