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IMS EMEA Newsletter Issue 2 - March 2010

 

The Eyes Have It

 

by Brendan Gallagher

Identity theft is a sad fact of everyday life – almost everyone knows somebody who has suffered some kind of card fraud. Until recently the only damage was to the victim's wallet. But now, as the Dubai assassination scandal unfolds, this form of crime is taking on a potentially deadly new dimension.

A number of the alleged assassins travelled on passports that were forged but incorporated the stolen identities of real – and innocent – people. These unwilling donors have had their names broadcast to the world and fear the suspicions not only of the investigators but also those of anyone who might seek revenge in the future.  

While investigations are still progressing regarding the exact nature of the false documents, the authorities have released enough information to expose yet again the Achilles' heel of the traditional passport.

The data on the identity information page, including the contents of the machine-readable zone, was evidently good enough for the Dubai immigration officers and their supporting systems. But the photographs of the real passport-holders had been replaced with those of the impostors, and there was no way of establishing there and then and with complete certainty that the individuals standing at immigration were who they claimed to be.

This window of opportunity for illegal immigrants and worse is beginning to close, thanks to the introduction of biometric technologies. By capturing and databasing one or more unique physical attributes – retinal patterns, fingerprints, facial images – it's now possible to be quite sure that the person presenting a passport is the same as the one described in it.

As it happens, Dubai is an early adopter of biometrics. It has made a start by issuing biometric credentials to immigrant workers to track their arrivals and departures. After disembarking from the aircraft, the returning worker presents himself at the electronic gate system, where the information on the biometric card is captured and then compared with fingerprints taken on the spot. If the two tally, confirming the traveller's identity, he is free to pass through the gate.

The system works well for those travellers who are enrolled in it, expediting their travel while meeting the needs of Dubai's immigration authorities. But as recent events show, no immigration control system can even approach full effectiveness until it can be applied to the overwhelming majority of the travellers presenting themselves at the border. In an increasingly dangerous world, the case for putting biometrics into every passport and every immigration desk grows stronger by the minute.

 

 

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