back to article The robot at the border: UK bets big on face scanning

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith is taking risks with public safety, whilst simultaneously condemning thousands of airline passengers to long delays this winter. That is the fear expressed by a spokesperson for the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), in reaction to government plans to test new face recognition software at …


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  1. This post has been deleted by its author

  2. Anonymous Coward


    "then expect Manchester to become destination number one for criminals seeking to avoid detection on their way into the UK."

    Isn't Manchester already full of criminals? Where will all the new ones go? Liverpool? Same problem...

  3. dervheid
    Black Helicopters

    Security is not the reasoning here...

    Tracking Joe Public is. Another trial piece in the NuLabourian Utopia jigsaw.

    "Papers please, Citizen"

  4. Anonymous Coward

    A happy terrorist is... a happy terrorist

    Don't forget according to the passport photo guidelines they can't detect you if you are smiling.

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    The computer says 'noow'

    There are some situations where its 'nicer' to have a human - ok, that maybe a border control / immigration official but I've just got used to having to queue at border control and at least you can exchange a few plesantries. Now standing after a long jet lagged flight, in the equivalent of a cash machine queue trying to fathom another bit of technology - is this really progress? The best way to describe it would be to visit a post office on pensions day, when you need a stamp for a 'large' letter and multiply it by a factor of 10, 'press the green button' 'try again, thats the wrong pin' 'I'm sure thats the right pin' - you get the picture...

  6. Andus McCoatover


    'Course, any ne'er-do-well would just photograph his accomplices boat race, print it and hold that up to the gate...D'ohhhhh

    Why Manchester? why not Stanstead? OK, I already know the answer..

    Q. "What do you call a Mancunian wearing a suit?"

    A. "The accused."

  7. Mister Cheese
    Black Helicopters


    Wonder if you could fool these boxes with a rubber mask that matches the face profile on the "biometric" passport?

    Comment about cost is a good one though - I'd estimate (using one ISO-standard wet finger) that each of these would cost £183k/year to run, including two annual software upgrades. Does it use Windows?

  8. Geoff Mackenzie

    No need to wait ...

    ... for them to release the details of the performance of this system. Just wait for them to lose it. Shouldn't take long.

  9. Joe Harrison

    I already had a go on one of these

    I had a meeting in Finland last week and they already have these (they would, wouldn't they.)

    I was in Helsinki airport and wandering up to the passport-checking barrier when a very affable bloke stops me and directs me instead to a glass box. He explained in cheerful tones that they had this new toy to play with - you open your passport and shove it in a slot like a reverse cash machine.

    If it likes your passport a door opens and you walk into the glass box and just stand there. A creepy alive-looking camera on a stalk then hunts for your face. The camera is a few feet away so I didn't feel it was simultaneously stealing my iris biometrics or what have you. If the camera image matches the digital photo it read from the passport then another door opens and you're in.

    I'm rabidly anti being pointlessly snooped on but I couldn't feel this was any worser than being done by a human.

    Of course I'm a Brit and therefore grade-B stock - all my genuine European colleagues I met up with had not had their passports checked at all anyway, because they were from Schengen countries.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    It's easy

    With current gov it's easy to predict how it's going to work:

    Subject is white: non-terrorist

    Subject is not white: terrorist, put in jail for 42 days and then kick out from country. Also plant some "evidence" if they came with a laptop, digital camera or mp3 player.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Just more of the same

    "Too many false positives, and the Home Office can expect letters from outraged citizens"

    Heh! As if they'd care about that!

    Millions marching in the capital don't stop this bunch doing what they want.

    I thought airports were safe now though? What with the steps to throw away bottles of pop and put lighters in plastic bags before flying.. I thought we were safe as houses?

    Must remember to add Osama T-shirts (along with Transformer ones) to the list of things not to wear when I fly. Don't want the scanner picking his mug up and thinking I am he.

  12. Thomas Bottrill

    A machine can't replace a human

    The immigration officers do more than see if you look like the picture on the passport. They check the passport for any obvious damage, as this could indicate a forged passport. They also check the person for signs of nervousness, as this could indicate someone travelling with a passport that isn't theirs. A machine can't really do either of these things.

  13. M7S

    Wont somebody think of the children? (part 47)

    My son is now 3 and looks nothing like the passport photo of him taken when he was 7 months old. How will the machines cope with that or will all children (the ones least likely to take it well if they are in a bad mood) be pulled to one side along with their travelling companions to be spun the old fashioned way?

    Could make holiday seasons interesting at a packed Heathrow if they've reduced the staff levels in light of all the benefits this technology is supposed to bring.

    Whilst I think of it, how good is the system if your unfortunately typical brit tourist comes back from Ibiza with a significant degree of either tan or more likely lobster red sunburn? Is it grounds to refuse entry to those claiming to be returning to our shores? (Pretty please, we can reconcentrate the gene pool)

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Barcodes at the supermarket

    How many times has the bar code reader at the supermarket checkout been unable to read the simple black and white stripe barcode and the checkout girl had to hand key it in herself?

    That's a simple black and white stripe, machine printed to be regular and repeatable, unchanging over time, printed flat and on a mat surface at an exact proportion. It's read by a scanner exactly designed to read that stripe and from 14 different angles. Yet it fails with regularity and people have to fix the problem by manually reading the stripe number underneath.

    Yet a camera is supposed to reliably read a 3d shape, that changes constantly, grows and loses hair, changes colour if exposed to the sun, and is made of a soft fatty material and match it against a 2d representation of that image taken years earlier?

    Jacqui's just not competent, her judgement is rubbish, her logical reasoning flawed and when faced with a bad decision she's made, she falls back to spin, deceptive reports, or bravado. Gordon's clearly not strong enough to sack her. Watch for a stream of crash and burn stories as this system fails endlessly and watch for Tories to make hay over this and similar bad choices.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    Guess what'll happen make sure it speeds up the process, set the bar low enough to let a few terrrrists in, then when they blow stuff up you've got a great excuse to put in more of this crap.

    Time to buy a boat! (where's the "I'm emigrating" icon?)

  16. Anonymous Coward

    Machines: once fooled, always fooled

    Another security vulnerability is that your criminal can practice spoofing the machine at leisure, in the comfort of their own home (assuming they can get hold of some similar-enough software). Once they've mastered the appropriate gurn, they can come and go across Britain's eBorders as often as they please, confident of always being able to spoof the robot border guard. Human immigration officers don't suffer from this problem; they're always capable of making exceptions when something looks odd.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    How about Brits get a Tattoo barcode on their forehead?

    You get everyone barcoded at birth a simple black and white stripe tattoo on their forehead with their ID card number on it.

    That way the failure rate will be much bettter, it will be nearly as good as supermarket barcode readers (something like 1 in 90 on none flat surfaces). Obviously it won't be quite that good given the nature of tattoos and the way the face changes over time and hair in the way and so on. But it will be much better than face recognition algorithms.

    Obviously forgery is a problem, but the passport biometric data algo is already broken, so it's no worse than the passport chip, and tattoo's are damn difficult to get rid of completely, the scaring would be a giveaway.

  18. Matt

    Oh god...

    "photographic data held on the chip"

    When will people learn? ID goes on chip, data goes in database. Its only a matter of time before someone from MIT figures out the encryption and manages to change the stored photo on one of these cards.

  19. Andus McCoatover

    Abolish passports...

    Why, oh why do we go through this archaic process? I can go between Nordic countries (e.g. Finland-Norway/Sweden) in the same way as folks in UK can go between England and, say, Wales without noticing. E.g., - Finland (Suomi) on the right, Sweden (Sverige) on the left of the river. No shite. So, what's the difference? No, don't tell me "immigrants", 'cos no-one in their right mind wants to live in a 3rd world country, paying 1st world taxes. Terrorists? Give 'em a map showing where Parliament is. Couple of sticks of Semtex with their first dole cheque might save money! (No more dole cheques...)

    So, get rid of passports, and let internal forces deal with any problems. After all, they can reliably deal with a Brazilian electrician. No problem.

    Keep terrorists out? Sure, worked a treat for 11/9 or 7/7 didn't it? Yep. Another fuc*king stupid decision from fuc*kers who can't listen to reason.

    Britain - Quote from the first Alien film - "You have my sympathy"

  20. Andus McCoatover

    @How about Brits get a Tattoo barcode on their forehead?

    Sorry, Matey.

    Nazis patented that way back.

  21. druck Silver badge

    Easily fooled

    If a couple of people who don't mind being disappeared for 42 days care to try, why not print out a life sized picture of your face on cardboard, then as long a no actual official is watching, swap pictures and passports when going through the scanner. Get someone else to take a snap of the shenanigans, and you could run off to a tabloid for a nice little earner on the resulting hysterical terrorist doom story.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Straight out of Dilbert

    "I began by assuming anything I don't understand must be easy to do"

  23. Ian Holton

    @@How about Brits get a Tattoo barcode on their forehead?

    "Nazis patented that way back."

    Patents expire.

  24. michael

    millions of years

    that is how long the human ability to reconise a face has had to be developed and tested and they expect this mecheen to work?

  25. Alan Fisher

    Rubbish idea

    What is one (ideally if one is male!) grows facial hair/topiary as one considers it both sophisticated and an improvement of one's likelyhood to find a mate? Or one gains or loses weight? My last passport pic was taken when I was almost ten years younger, living in Spain and slightly resembling Ricky Martin (the Shame!!!) would I get done for trying to Impersonate a Crappy Celebrity with Intent??? The one I have now looks like me, for now....

    I can't wait for twins to start messing this system up.....

    it's a gimmick and that's all it is...iris recognition, yes, dna recognition, yes, biometric (old skool) recognition, yes. Facial recognition? To quote Idi Amin, "she is a silly man!"

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Way to go

    These recently appeared at airports in Portugal. If you have a chipped passport, it's by far the quickest way through. I give it the thumbs up. Anyone with privacy concerns can either stay at home or pick the slow lane. Anyone who wants to get on with their life and business can embrace this and get on with things.

  27. James Bassett
    Thumb Up

    Re: Barcodes at the supermarket

    "How many times has the bar code reader at the supermarket checkout been unable to read the simple black and white stripe barcode and the checkout girl had to hand key it in herself?"

    Erm, not seen that one for years now you come to mention it.

    Oh, sorry, what was your point?

  28. nana

    @ Rik Hemsley & @ michael

    Face recognition is, perhaps counter-intuitively, one thing that we do not fair well at as humans, in the context of matching a real face to an image

    We can recognise _people_, but that capacity for recognition relies on far more factors than the visual image, especially just the static, 2D visual image. Familiarity of the subject, for example, is the single most important factor.

    You could, for example, take a selection of passport facial photographs of your significant other, and insert a similar appearing stranger, and you would be hard pressed to pick out the stranger with 100% rate of accuracy.

    Further complicate that with picking a stranger from a selection of strangers, losing the advantage of familiarity, and your accuracy drops again.

    The traditional passport queue continues to operate, however, because of an innate unwillingness to make false positive / negative matches on the basis of our ability to match a face to a picture.

    The proof of concept for computers to perform matching (not recognition) is there - It's now a question of accuracy.

  29. Sillyfellow

    alternative to rfid implant

    yes, i'll tell you exactly what is going on here in plain simple terms...

    do you recall all of this RFID Implant hoohaa?

    which so far hasn't gone down very well at all with us 'common people'..

    so it would seem to me that this technology is being evaluated and developed as a potential alternative to rfid implants for tracking your every movement..

    soon as it's working well we can expect that our CCTV systems will be 'upgraded' and 'expanded' to have the capability to recognise who you are and thereby track your every move..

    never forget that if you have any opinion that is in disagreement with anything the govermnet say or do, then YOU are the enemy. it is YOU the gvt is scared of and needs to control.

    someone expressed the opinion that we shouldn't need any passport in the first place. of course they are right unless the aim is to establish division between people of the earth. you should know that, 'total control' by means of 'divide and conquer' and 'keep the masses terrified' is what our unenlightened leadership want.

  30. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Portugal in 10 years

    "These recently appeared at airports in Portugal. If you have a chipped passport, it's by far the quickest way through."

    Not really.

    In the auto system you put your passport into the reader open at the main page, then go to a camera which will slide up or down to your height, to get a photo taken, then it compares the two (only the distance between the eyes and eyelid shape) then if it works you pass, if it fails you go to the manual queue. To work EACH user has to know how to operate the machine and what to do.

    In the manual system of says Schiphol, you go to the booth, *he* puts it in the reader and *HE* looks at your face (all of it not just the distance between the eyes and eyelid shape), he can match faces that aren't directly facing the camera, then lets you through. All the operation is done by him as is the face recognition algo. More than that, he can ask questions, smell your fear, see your scared expression, assess your demeanour etc.

    It's about the same for experienced users a little slower for novice users and a lot slower if the machine says no (which apparently it does even now).

    Now here's the biggest problem, in 10 years time, your border guard will be able to adjust the photo (now 10 years old) to your face and match them up, because he can see how you've aged. The machine however will assume you look the same, that you've neither grown, nor shrunk with age or medical condition. So over time these machines will progressively fail as these new fangled biometric passports get out of date.

    But even without failing, they don't do a full compare and the biometric they compare against is stored in a chip that's already been cracked anyway so cannot be relied upon.

    Then there's the privacy problem you allude to, unfortunately they never tackled the privacy problem. In previous internal EU travel you could not be asked at the border the purpose of your visit, no stamp could be affixed, people were afforded freedom and privacy. In the new system it's a big database recording everyone going everywhere no doubt.

    BTW, it's a Portuguese company that makes them so there's a lot of national tolerance for these.

  31. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @nana & handwriting recognition vs face

    "You could, for example, take a selection of passport facial photographs of your significant other, and insert a similar appearing stranger, and you would be hard pressed to pick out the stranger with 100% rate of accuracy."

    Google street view face detection algo can't even spot *where* the face is half the time. Which is why these border machines require a fixed view photo but the border guard doesn't.

    They also can't extrapolate facial hair, which is why they don't check it, only stuff related to the eyes and sometimes the nose.

    They also don't understand how human ageing affects the face, yet as Joyce McKinney found out humans can!

    "The traditional passport queue continues to operate, however, because of an innate unwillingness to make false positive / negative matches on the basis of our ability to match a face to a picture."

    As the article explains the system generated too many false negatives and had to be recalibrated (you mean you turned down the sensitivity).... so even with up to date biometrics photos these systems did not work. They have no hope with stale photos.

    But then that's what likely happened in Portugal where it's installed in the *domestic* terminal 2, since it's domestic it doesn't need to be such a good test and being a Portuguese system rolled out in Portugal, it would be a sense of national shame if it rejected lots of people. So I bet they turned down the sensitivity to minimize false negatives.

    I'd reckon the accuracy is about the same as handwriting recognition or less since that's a typical image recognition problem with a variation over time. So over time they'll settle at about the handwriting scanner level of success.

  32. Anonymous Coward

    You've missed CSI

    Where they have that wonderful software on their magical computers that ages peoples faces for them....put that on the scanner with your dated passport and just make sure you aren't entering your 2nd childhood!

  33. JohnG

    @ Matt "photographic data held on the chip"

    It's already cracked:

  34. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Karl Malden says no

    Lets do a quick test on Karl Malden using Photoshop's distance measure tool

    Middle age Karl:

    I make the gap 49 pixels between centre of pupils, and 34 from the intersection of the line joining the center pupils to the low point of the nose.

    Ratio 1.44

    Older Karl:

    Gap between pupils 73 pixels, bottom of nose to intersect line 52

    Ratio 1.4

    So to get that pasts we'd need say +- 2% tolerance, about 1.4 to 1.48

    So I reckon the extremes are say 0.75 to 2, and there are 6 billion people,

    as a rule of thumb even if they were all evenly spread it would be 344 million people with that same facial biometric.

    You know, that's not very good to say the least. The problem with facial recognition is that it's comparing fleshy points that change over time. The bone even changes, but the flesh changes much more.

    Karl nose is fleshy of course which is why I chose him to illustrate the problem, although it fails all over the place for the same reason.

    Now lucky for the facial recognition people that they're saying yes or no, 50-50 chance of getting right.

    And if they get it wrong and get a false positive?... Well who will know? Nobody checks the machine. And if they simply say yes nearly always then it's a pat on the back and people think it works. Sort of the astrology of the sciences.... "you will have a good day" and dumb people believe it.

    But you do have to wonder about the competence of Jacqui. Only a fooking idiot is an early adopter that doesn't do even the quickest of tests.

    Even if she stopped and used her brain (sic) on this for a fraction of a second:

    Any terrorist can simply try this machine to see if it accept him as the passport holder in a friendly airport till he finds a passport that matches, then he knows he can get through in unfriendly ones. Even if terrorists weren't entering with all the proper paperwork (or live here, our terrorists lived in leeds), you just weakened the security.

    Jacqui just resign already. You're not fit to be in the position you occupy.

  35. Shakje

    While the privacy implications worry me...

    I'm not as worried by the other side of the stick, considering on the Guardian site there's comments on an MI5 report about those who become involved in terrorism. One of the conclusions is:

    "The majority are British nationals and the remainder, with a few exceptions, are here legally. Around half were born in the UK, with others migrating here later in life. Some of these fled traumatic experiences and oppressive regimes and claimed UK asylum, but more came to Britain to study or for family or economic reasons and became radicalised many years after arriving."

    It's just another method of spying on legitimate citizens, and in a few years time will be another case of "we haven't been bombed, so it must work, quick, install them in all airports".

  36. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @Rubbish idea (Alan Fisher)

    Actually, no. Face geometry is quite resistant to real or fake hair growth. For example, it's going to be pretty hard to change the distance between your eyes, or the eye to nose triangle.

    Re passports, unlike US passports, bizarrely EU passports have been designed WITHOUT shielding, which means the chip can be read from a distance. But that also means it'll pick up any RF field.

    It's thus impossible to prove that YOU damaged that chip..

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