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Consular news – Embassy 17 – May 2009

The basics of biometrics

Consuls and visa officers recently attended a VFS-sponsored seminar jointly hosted by the Romanian and Bulgarian Embassies to debate the challenges of rolling out biometric documents within the Schengen area.

Lessons from biometric pilot projects
Consuls learned about the EU biometric pilot programmes, Biodev I and II, from Bart Coessens, who is head of Visa Monitoring at the Belgian foreign ministry.

In his opening remarks, Mr Coessens said the advantage of biometric passports and visas was a more effective way to combat visa and passport fraud, while a shared database would also prevent ‘visa shopping’ where an applicant rejected in one Schengen state applies at another Schengen state. He added technological advances in biometrics would eventually expedite border checks by enabling automated e-gates at border controls.

Mr Coessens went on to explain the findings of the pilot projects and highlighted the main challenges of introducing a functional and efficient biometric system. Firstly, capturing useable biometric data (such as the scanning of fingerprints) requires trained staff and high quality hardware to capture data.

In instances of common application centres, consulates would need interoperable software. Issues of data protection also arose, particularly in the sharing of data with other authorities.

Consuls also faced the logistical challenge of space, since applicants need to apply for in person in order to capture the biometric data. Space and staffing constraints, as well as inconvenience for applicants, raised the issue of outsourcing or the possibility of common Schengen visa application centres.

Biometric technologies
Dr Andreas Wolfe, Vice President of Technology and IP Management at Cross Match technologies, gave a consuls a valuable insight into the development of hardware and the practical aspects of implementing a user-friendly biometric system.

With data being stored for five to ten years, Wolfe stressed the importance of using certified equipment and interoperable software, especially at the application stage, to ensure a high quality, standardised biometric database. He added that states considering outsourcing should ensure that commercial partners are certified and conform with European standards.

“If you put garbage into the system, you will get garbage out of the system,” he warned consuls.

Wolfe also stressed that efficient, ergonomic systems were important in order that travellers do not feel criminalised at enrolment or immigration control. He added that with the introduction of large aeroplanes, the development of reliable technology (such as iris scanning) to ensure speedy, semi-automated border controls would become paramount in future.

Wolfe concluded his talk by saying that a balance needed to be struck between cost, security and customer service.

Biometrics in the US
Describing her experiences with biometrics Addie Harchik, non-immigrant visa chief at the US Embassy, said the system was more effective at helping the US facilitate legitimate travel while keeping those posing a security threat out of the country.

She added that the introduction of biometrics had a deterrent effect, with the applicant pool dropping an astonishing 25%.

Although more expensive, the US has introduced 10-print scanning as a further protection against fraud so that print verification can be randomised for various digits.

In addition to biometrics, she explained that US law requires every applicant, with a few exceptions, to be interviewed, which help consuls to detect so-called ‘non-verbal indicators’.

 Harchik conceded that a major issue with biometrics is the inconvenience to the applicant who needs to apply in person. For this reason the US is currently piloting a mobile fingerprint scanner to process large groups located far from the consulate.

Space constraints and staffing are always a challenge, she said, raising the issue of outsourcing.

The key is flexibility, she said: “We need to approach this on a case-by-case basis. Local issues and clientele are different and so a one-size-fits-all policy will not work.”

UK Border Agency
In his presentation, Tony Mercer, identity manager director at UKBA, outlined aspects of the UK experience, including the introduction of biometric visas and the National Identity scheme.

Consuls heard how the UK biometric system had been rolled out at the end of 2007, at a cost of £38m. The UK now operates visa application centres in over 130 countries and the UK biometric visa database contains three million sets of prints, which Mercer regards as an “invaluable asset” for crime prevention.

Since the introduction of the system, more than 5,000 attempted identity swaps had been detected. “The system has produced huge benefits to the UK in tackling illegal immigration,” Mercer said.

In order to make the biometric visa system cost-effective and accessible to applicants, UKBA outsourced the data capture to a commercial partner, VFS Global. “We could not have rolled out the system without the support of our commercial partner,” he said.

He explained to consuls that the UKBA is now working towards a cross-agency integrated National Identity system. He concluded his talk by saying strong partnerships between the UK government, law enforcement agencies, commercial partners and foreign governments would be at the heart of any future integrated identity system.
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Mr Bart Coessens head of Visa Monitoring at the Belgian foreign ministry


Dr Andreas Wolfe, Vice President of Technology and IP Management at Cross Match technologies


Addie Harchik, non-immigrant visa chief at the US Embassy


Tony Mercer, identity manager director at UKBA

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