U.S. Immigration tries high-tech ``tags'' at borders

U.S. Immigration tries high-tech ``tags'' at borders

By Theta Pavis

SAN FRANCISCO (Wired) - It's been 44 years since Ellis Island closed shop, but immigration can still be a long, tiresome process. In an effort to speed the process for international travelers, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service is offering a biometric system for willing frequent flyers.

So far, 71,000 people in six airports have signed up for the system, called INSPASS. It employs a biometric kiosk to scan and match the geometric dimensions of travelers' hands, verify their identities, and perform standard background checks. The INS plans to expand the program to four additional airports by the end of the year.

``It creates a fast lane for people,'' said James Wayman, head of the federally funded National Biometric Test Center at San Jose State University.

The kiosks were integrated by EDS, which has had a $300 million contract with the INS for automation support and software development since 1994. This summer, the INS awarded a new, five-year information-technology contract worth $750 million to EDS and four other companies.

Ann Cohen, an EDS vice president in the government services group, said the fact that so many people have signed up for the INSPASS system shows that biometrics are becoming more popular and could be commonplace in the future.

``Were getting over that 'Big Brother' hurdle,'' Cohen said. As e-commerce develops and terrorism grows, biometrics increasingly are the ``only sure way to get security.''

US and Canadian citizens flying overseas on business at least three times a year are eligible for the free INSPASS program. People from Bermuda and 26 other countries that have visa-waiver agreements with the United States are also eligible.

The INSPASS kiosks, which look like ATM machines, were recently installed at the Los Angeles International Airport, where more than 1,000 people have enrolled in the program. Rico Cabrera, a spokesman with the INS Los Angeles regional office, said travelers like the fact that INSPASS can check their identity in 16 to 60 seconds, a process that can take up to three hours at some airports. The largest group of INSPASS users at LAX are US citizens, followed by Australians and New Zealanders.

After filling out a one-page form and passing a background check, travelers can be issued a Port Pass card with their picture and a 12-number ID on it.

A traveler inserts the card in the kiosk, which reads the ID number and links to a centralized database run by US Customs. A geometric hand template is called up from the database and transferred to the kiosk. After a green light flashes, the right hand is placed on a reflective surface-the ID-3D Handkey, made by Recognition Systems. The HandKey uses a video camera to take a geometric image of the traveler's hand and fingers, and the data is converted using compression algorithms. If it matches the template of the hand stored in the database, the traveler is in.

INSPASS kiosks are also in use at airports in Newark, Miami, Kennedy (New York), Pearson (Toronto), and Vancouver, British Columbia. The INS eventually plans to install them at most busy international airports around the country, including Washington, San Francisco, Seattle, and Honolulu. The department has geared the program toward business travelers, diplomats, airline personnel, and other ``low-risk'' visitors.

Some argue that the INS hasn't done enough to market the program. Jeffrey Betts, WorldWide Solution Manager for IBM-which has developed FastGate, a kiosk similar to INSPASS-said people aren't enrolling fast enough in the INS system.

International arrivals at airports across the globe are growing every year by 7 to 10 percent, Betts said, but border control resources are flat or declining. In 1996, some 65,000 people were enrolled in the INSPASS program, but the program has added just 6,000 new users since then.

IBM, which has been running a small pilot program of FastGate in Bermuda for the past year, is building a system where people can swipe a credit card through a kiosk at the airport and connect with a database where the biometrics are stored.

``Governments will have to find ways to do more with less or force travelers to queue like cattle,'' Betts said.

While the government plans on marketing INSPASS more aggressively in the future, Schmidt said, INS is counting on word of mouth to get new people enrolled. ``We don't really have the budget for a huge marketing campaign,'' she said.


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