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Interview with Bill Sillery: Developments in biometrics at the border

FEATURE: NZ Security, April 2015

Biometric security for passports and visas is fast becoming a ubiquitous aspect of international travel. The collection of travellers’ biometric data – including fingerprints and iris scans – is an increasingly unavoidable part of the process of travel – from applying for visas to passing through immigration clearance at international airports.

For expert insight into the fast- developing world of biometrics, NZ Security Magazine had a chat with Bill Sillery, Global Project Coordinator for TT Services, a leading provider of integrated visa processing solutions for governments and diplomatic missions. TT Services is currently a service delivery partner of Immigration New Zealand (INZ), and operates visa application centres on behalf of INZ in 15 countries across the Pacific, Asia, Europe and North America.

Prior to joining TT Services, Bill
was senior advisor to Citizenship and Immigration Canada for its Temporary Residents Biometric Project. Before this, he was solution architect for the UK visa biometric enrolment system and UK National Identity Cards scheme, and was also a member of the ISO SC37 working group on biometric standards, part of an all-country biometrics rollout for the UK.

NZSM: How does the collection of traveller biometric data enhance border security?

Bill: Biometric border controls using photographs have actually been in use since the First World War, and have always been unpopular. Lt. Commander Kenworthy, MP for the English constituency of Kingston-upon-Hull had this to say in Parliament back in 1922: “You have to get a passport, a photograph, and you have to pay your fees. We all know that photographs untouched are not flattering things on a passport. You have to stand in a queue among the ducks in St. James Park, and it is all an infernal nuisance...”

Nonetheless, the League of Nations agreed to implement passports in their more or less modern form rather than return to the pre-war days of passport
free travel, and the era of biometric travel checks began. Almost 100 years later, the same check of the face in the passport continues to be the predominant means of admission at the border.

The days of post-9/11 travel have seen rapid change, as advances in technology have permitted a wider range of biometric tests to be performed, the most important of which is the ability to use fingerprints to rapidly search vast repositories for matches. This has been readily adopted by security minded governments so now it is relatively normal when applying for a visa to be expected to attend an application centre to give your fingerprints.

The early implementations of fingerprint checks by the US and UK amongst others proved very successful in identifying persons of interest, ranging from those previously deported travelling under false identities, to individuals using multiple identities to access state benefits. They were very popular in parliament they worked and made for good press releases. As such they have caught on and many other governments have followed or are following suit.

NZSM: How has it made a difference in terms of visa and passport integrity?

Bill: Alongside the rise of biometric checks for visas, we’ve also seen the increasing uptake of what rather inevitably have been termed ePassports. These include a chip containing data about the authenticity of the passport, and an enciphered biometric record of the holder. There are the usual issues with compatibility of the early versions, but the intent is to deliver a uniform implementation that includes the face, fingerprints and iris of the holder.

ePassports are, for now, beyond the reach of the more accessible forms of tampering and forgery, and the inclusion of biometrics offers great potential to check the legitimacy of the holder.

Until ePassports have universal uptake, and even then probably for the foreseeable future, destination governments will
want to maintain their own independent biometric record of all visitors. This will be frustrating for the traveller who has gone to the trouble of giving biometrics when they applied for the passport but will continue to need to do so whenever they travel.

NZSM: What are the major challenges facing the implementation of biometrics collection for border authorities.

Bill: Collecting biometrics – particularly fingerprints – is currently an inherently physical process, which typically needs
to take place in a controlled environment using specialist equipment and trained staff. Without biometrics, visa applications would by now almost certainly have been purely online, but for now a trip to a diplomatic mission or outsourced visa application centre is a necessary part of travel. The challenge for governments is to find a balance in a three-way contest between cost, accessibility and security when providing points of enrolment for visa applicants.

In the short term, governments need to maximise their global footprint of application centres without increasing costs or decreasing security. An obvious way to do this is for a government to share application centres with like-minded governments and overcome the faintly embarrassing situation of half empty biometrics offices of one country sitting next to half empty offices of another, doing exactly the same job. To do so will require governments to work together
to overcome incompatible policy and legislative controls that prevent collection capacity from being shared.

A far greater challenge however is what to do about travellers who don’t currently require a visa to travel.

Historically, visa-free status has been awarded to visitors from ‘friendly’ countries deemed a low threat. However, with the rising threat of extremist travellers from such countries – particularly retuning jihadists – it is precisely these groups that governments are most eager to screen. How to do so without imposing full biometric visa requirements on these nationals is probably the greatest challenge of the next five years.

NZSM: Just how secure is the storage of the biometric data?

Bill: Whether your biometric data continues to be secure depends largely on how seriously the government holding it takes data security, and how committed they are to investing to keep it ahead of advancing threats. At present, for travellers this is a moot point: if you wish to travel to a country you have to allow them to collect and store your biometric identity.

As more countries with less robust data security regimes enforce biometric checks, and as the use of biometrics become
more prevalent and therefore desirable for criminals, the threat of biometric identity theft will without doubt increase.

NZSM: Do you foresee increased sharing of biometric data between governments? Should people be worried about this?

Bill: Biometric data is already exchanged by some countries with bilateral agreements. The early implementers have been very keen to ensure that international human rights law, and in particular the right to privacy, have been respected.

This reserved approach is likely to be extensively tested in the future as the need for sharing data, particularly as a means of restricting the movement of terrorists or terrorist groups increases.

The UN is on one hand very keen for states to “implement sharing schemes including the exchange of biometric data on those wishing to travel”; while in the same document (UNSC resolution 2178) stressing “the need for all such efforts to respect fundamental freedoms and rights”. Whether future implementations continue to abide by the UN’s requirements stands to be seen, but at least the foundation has been laid for exchange to take place with respect for the individual’s rights.

NZSM: We’ve seen highly visible biometric developments in relation to passports and visas, in what other areas is biometric enrolment playing a role?

Bill: The next advances in the use of biometrics are likely to come from the private and commercial sector rather than governments. Biometric identity card schemes come in and out of favour, but when dealing with their own citizens elected governments are typically very wary of imposing biometric regimes, no matter how they are dressed up.

Banks, credit card companies and the makers of smart phones have no such compunctions, so we can expect to see the rise of biometric ATMs and perhaps identity validation for online credit card transactions using the readers on smart phones. As the penetration and uptake of these devices and services increases into a new status quo, there will be opportunities for governments to adopt them, as they did with the Internet.

NZSM: How do you see the biometric collection landscape changing over the next five to ten years?

Bill: Biometric checks of travellers will become more ubiquitous. Biometric enrolment facilities for visa applications will evolve towards shared, purpose neutral, drop-in centres. As smart phones continue to evolve we can expect to see biometric technology becoming part of their entry-level function, which will begin moving biometric checks away from facilities toward self-administered online enrolments and checks.

As the ubiquity of biometric checks increases there will be pressures to drive out duplication while preserving privacy. We can expect to see the question of who controls your identity to rise higher in the public’s consciousness, and we may see initiatives that try to wrest back control and ownership of individuals’ biometric identity under tighter control by the individual themselves.

Back to Border

Biometrics insider: Bill Sillery, Global Project Coordinator, TT Services

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