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Dubai International Airport is harnessing the latest fingerprint technology to speed up immigration procedures. Ben Smalley looks at the new system and how fingerprints are being increasingly used to protect the identity and rights of individuals around the world.

   After a long and tiring overseas flight all you want is to get home and relax - the last thing you want to do is join a long queue and wait in line for what can seem like an eternity to pass through immigration control and have your passport checked.

   There is nothing worse than arriving at Dubai International Airport at the same time as a dozen other flights and being faced with queues stretching the length of the immigration hall.

   But help is at hand thanks to the latest in biometric technology - it is now possible to simply run a smart card through a reader and place two fingers on an optical sensor, which will check your fingerprints against the information stored on the card, for immediate immigration clearance at arrivals and departures.

   The new system has been developed by the Dubai Naturalisation and Residency Department (DNRD) under the directives of General Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Dubai Crown Prince and UAE Defence Minister, and Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation and Chairman of Emirates, to speed up immigration procedures.

   Travellers wanting to use the new system must first register at the enrollment office set up at the airport and have their details stored on the database, including a digital scan of their unique fingerprints. They will then be issued with a smart card, which contains all the information needed to prove their identity, and can then use the automated entry and exit gates to ‘fast-track’ through immigration.

   The automated system, the first of its kind in the Middle East and a relatively new global concept, is a timely addition to the facilities at Dubai airport, which is ranked as the busiest in the region and one of the fastest growing airports in the world.

   Despite the impact of global events, Dubai airport registered a 10 per cent growth in passenger numbers in 2001 with 13.5 million people passing through the airport. Future projections anticipate continued growth to 30 million passengers by 2010, making the introduction of an automated immigration clearance system a time saving asset for both the authorities and passengers.

   Colonel Saeed Bin Belaila, Director of the DNRD, said: “This enormous volume of passengers and the resulting documentation procedures would become increasingly difficult to handle unless an organised system is in place to oversee all aspects of passenger movement, which is why we have devised this system of automated electronic gates that will not only speed up the registration of travellers through the airport but also act as a significant barrier for illegal entrants.”  

   The information system that manages the whole process, including the electronic gate control, fingerprints and card issue, has been devised and developed in-house by the DNRD.

   Major Khalid Majid Lootah, Head of the IT Section, said: “The electronic gate system is the result of over 10 months of concerted effort by the staff of our in-house IT department and has been devised using enhanced technologies which ensure that the service rendered is extremely accurate. It is also a very important move to curb fraud and impersonation at the entry and exit levels as the gate will only allow those passengers into the system whose fingerprints match the enrolled identifications.”

   He added: “The fact that we have not outsourced the information management system has also saved the DNRD over 70 per cent of the initial costs, in addition to 60 per cent per gate. The only components of the equipment that have been outsourced are the gates, the fingerprint system, and the ID cards.”

   The unique and unalterable patterns of every person’s fingerprints have been used in the fight against crime by police forces all over the world since the beginning of the 20th century, but their systematic use for civil purposes dates back even further.

   In 1858, William Herschel, the British governor of Bengal, was so exasperated by the fact that the contracts he signed were never honoured that he decided to get one of his suppliers to place a palm print of his hand on an order for equipment. A few years later, in 1877, when he was the pensions administrator in Calcutta, Herschel implemented a system for authenticating the payment of pensions based on fingerprints.

   Only years later, at the end of the 19th century, did the British police seize upon the idea to identify criminals, and particularly habitual offenders, by their fingerprints. The system proved so effective that the United States, France and other countries very quickly followed the example set by Scotland Yard.

   In 1964, again in Britain, someone had the idea of processing fingerprints by computer and that technology has now advanced to such a stage that fingerprint identification systems have been developed for use in other government fields – such as securing the production of ID documents and paying social security or welfare benefits - as well as a wide range of commercial, industrial and private uses, including monitoring employee time and attendance, controlling access to buildings and computers, enabling secure commercial transactions, and more recently, airport security.

   One of the leading companies in the field of automated fingerprint processing technology is Sagem, whose systems are used in over 40 countries around the world.

A spokesman for the French company said: “ Today, more than ever, airport security needs to be completely reappraised. With a daily flow of between 100,000 and 200,000 passengers, and a staff of several tens of thousands, the population of a large airport is as difficult to manage as that of a city.

   “The situation is made even more complex by the fact that these figures are constantly increasing and existing security systems are no longer sufficient. Throughout the world, whether they deal with international, internal, business flights or general aviation, airports need to reorganise to strengthen security in terms of equipment and procedures. Making air transport safe requires a joint commitment by airports, airlines and all the civil aviation authorities, including the police, immigration services and customs.”  

   Checking people’s identity is one of the cornerstones of airport security and systems can be introduced so fingerprints can be scanned, and passenger identity quickly verified, at check-in desks, when using loyalty cards, at passport control, on entering exclusive airport lounges and on boarding the aircraft to ensure the person travelling is who he or she says they are, and that the person who checked-in is the same person boarding the plane. Equally, the principal can be applied to airport staff to ensure that only authorised people access restricted areas, log-on to sensitive computers, or use service or refuelling vehicles, for example.

   “Biometrics is the only reliable solution for protecting the identity and the rights of individuals, because it recognises unique and unalterable features,” the Sagem spokesman said. “Recently, we have started marketing a range of commercial biometric products, particularly for access control, the technology of which has emerged directly from the most advanced algorithms developed for State security.”

   When enrolling for a fingerprint recognition system, applicants are required to place two fingers on an optic sensor and the image of his or her fingerprints are immediately digitised. Capturing the image takes just two or three seconds and only requires a little practice and no prior experience by the employee assigned to perform the task.

   After they have been automatically processed to determine their unique features, the person’s fingerprints can be inscribed - either as a two-dimensional bar code or in the memory of a smart card - on an identity card or similar document which contains other personal information such as their name, address, date of birth, photograph, passport number and signature.

   Cryptography can be used to associate a digital signature with the data inscribed in the document, and this signature is created on the bases of the characteristic elements of the fingerprint and becomes obsolete if these elements are modified, with only the authority which issued the document having the key to read the information inscribed in the card.

   Hence, when the identity or smart card is used, the person’s fingerprints can be scanned, digitised and automatically checked to ensure they match the digital signature stored on the card, which irreversibly associates the owner with his or her document. All the information can also be stored on a database by the issuing authority, which can allow for fingerprints to be read and matched with the data in the system.

   The increased security offered by biometric technology can be customised for use in any application where identity is an issue to prevent fraud.

   “Identity fraud has rapidly become one of the most costly and dangerous problems faced by society today,” the Sagem spokesman said. “Frauds where the objective is as serious as gaining access to protected areas, bank accounts, computer networks or files, buildings, safes, faxes, GSMs or benefits intended only for people entitled to receive them, require a foolproof access control system to be installed.

·                   Most physical access security systems in use today are not secure enough since they rely on tokens such as magnetic cards, identification numbers or secret codes. Because of their inability to detect false acceptance, but also because they can be lost or forgotten, these tokens are sources for frequent security breaches. People can enter these systems with someone else’s token, which also means that non-entitled persons can enter private areas. One of the most reliable and safest control access devices is based on fingerprint recognition as only the persons whose fingerprints have been captured are entitled to enter protected areas.

   “This kind of access control is intended to safeguard the identity of individuals, and possibly their life, by protecting their physical or logical access rights. Using physical features which are unique and cannot be changed to recognise individuals allows maximum reliability to be achieved in the fight against fraud.”

   The know-how gained by Sagem in the field of fingerprint processing and recognition has allowed the company to create a number of individual identification and authentication products for an increasing range of applications.

   “These systems were initially reserved for institutional applications, such as the management of ID cards, electors and driving licences or the payment of social security benefits,” the spokesman said. “But Sagem now creates biometric products for an increasingly wide range of applications, whether commercial, industrial or private: e-commerce, banks, physical or logical access control, clocking in and out of work, etc.”

   With the rapid spread of technology and fraud costing governments and companies hundreds of millions of dollars a year, it may not be long before we have to have our fingerprints read each time we travel, use a credit card, enter our place of work or log-on to computers.

   “Biometric terminals and peripherals can be used for an almost infinite range of access control applications and have just one objective: to protect the identity and rights of individuals,” the Sagem spokesman said.



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