back to article MPs: Border Agency's own staff don't trust airport-scanner tech

The UK Border Agency's own staff don't trust the million pound bioscanning e-Gates installed at nine British airports, and in some cases actively discourage passengers from using them, said a damning report published today by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. MPs on the committee said that they had seen for …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    They will do what the police have done with DNA records, i.e. nothing, in the face of privacy concerns UKGov will ignore any requests to remove data and illegally keep all your data on file, just in case...

    1. James Micallef Silver badge

      Note that...

      1. "staff felt "threatened" by the eGates and didn't really understand them: "We need to explain to staff the reasons why we think automation is a good idea, and win them over, to help people feel that it is part of making the "Agency" more efficient," Whiteman told the committee."

      Translated: guy in charge is blaming the staff for 'misunderstanding' the machines. That the staff are worried that the machines are crap is evidently not an option that has been considered.

      2. "The committee recommended that the agency provide convincing evidence, for its own staff as well as the general public, that the e-Gates system is no less reliable than passport checks carried out by a person."

      Translated:, The committee isn't asking the agency to verify the machines' performance and test that they actually are no less reliable than human checks. No, they have decided in advance that the machines are no less reliable than humans, and tasked the agency to provide convincing evidence. Presumably if no such evidence exists, it will be made up

    2. Nigel 11
      Paris Hilton

      Re: Presumably

      Unlike DNA and fingerprint scans, a retina scan can't be planted at any crime scene. Unlike DNA, it can't be used to incriminate your children and grandchildren not yet born, or to render you un-insurable because someone works out you have a gene-linked illness, or for certain kinds of blackmail.

      OK, a retina scan might be "planted" as a digital copy in a hacked system, but that goes for a photograph or a credit-card transaction as well. Further investigation ought to reveal that a copy was too identical to be a second scan, or was photoshopped.

      So why are we more unhappy that the authorities hold our retina scans, than we are that they hold our photographs? What is Paris worried about?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Yes. Now continue your argument please.

        Just like the latest fingerprint readers that can read from a couple metres away, so with retinas; a high-res CCTV camera is all it takes these days. And have the copy, can fake. It's not as obvious, but it's there. Or, you know, read the chip in that (unshielded) passport, and get the exact specs the picture or scan needs to conform to, to pass the test--that gives you even more freedom to forge. That makes the chip a liability, only mitigated by the (already demonstrated to be not very good) security measures in the chip. A perfect clone is already possible, and with no human around to see that the rest of the passport isn't forged, it actually got easier.

        But that's not even the real problem with biometrics. We trust biometrics regardless of how easy it is to fake them--in the case of fingerprints, gummi bears is all it takes, with irises, well, maybe doctored contact lenses will do nicely. We'll see.

        The point is that it's always easier to fake than to replace faked biometrics. What works well for criminal investigation does not automatically hold for "casual" identification. It's adversarial in nature, and I for me do dislike being treated like a proto-terrist "for my own safety". In the light that this approach puts a new incentive on faking other people's identities that way.

        And then there's the minor point that what we're doing it for --keeping those people off the planes who would blow them up-- has very little indeed to do with your biometrics. A human, experienced in watching behaviour and body language, will have more success here. Or if you absolutely must, a body language reading expert system or something. But quit it with the identity through ever more convoluted means obsession already. It isn't that important and you don't need to know. Hands off already.

  2. James 100

    Vested interests feeling "threatened"

    No surprise there - remember where the term "Luddite" actually comes from? In related news, Tube "drivers" are also strongly opposed to being replaced by machines...

    If they really don't work reliably, and can't be made to do so, that's different - as it stands, we have a story about turkeys not liking the smell of stuffing or the wrapping of presents.

    1. Vladimir Plouzhnikov

      Re: Vested interests feeling "threatened"

      Relax, they just DON'T work, as any regular traveler going through Heathrow can attest.

      1. The BigYin

        Re: Vested interests feeling "threatened"

        Also look at the revelations coming out from the USA over their scanners and cack-handed "security theatre".

        More and more it seems like the main objective is to instil a sense of fear in the public. And if anyone dares questions it, well by-golly-gosh they must be a terrorist!

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Instilling a sense of fear

          Since the UN defines terrorism as "acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes," just WHO are the terrorists here?

          Since the definition goes on to elaborate "whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them," I think they've nailed the current state of US/UK airport security.

          Didn't GW say "I know that many Americans at this time have fears. Yet, America is equal to this challenge, make no mistake about it. We'll show them what fear means."

  3. Jim Hague

    Anyone ever seen the e-gates at Luton working?

    Theve've always been switched on, and arrivals at Luton is plastered with signs telling you to use them. But after a couple of years passing through Luton monthly, I've never seen them open for business.

    Bristol now seems to post a list of restricted times the gates are open for business. I just missed this last time, and access was barred. So, I get to wait for some time in a queue for a bored official to insert my passport into the reader and see if the computer says no. Presumably the machinery needs a little lie down.

    1. Dotter

      Re: Anyone ever seen the e-gates at Luton working?

      Same at Heathrow, they've always been fenced off whenever I've been through there.

      1. Mike Richards Silver badge

        Re: Anyone ever seen the e-gates at Luton working?

        I used the e-Gates at Heathrow Terminal 3 a month or so ago. Thanks to millions of Pounds spent on high technology it only takes about five times as long to clear immigration as using the old method of going and talking to someone.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Anyone ever seen the e-gates at Luton working?

          What, 5 hours?*

          * Based on a flight my wife took into Heathrow with one desk serving all non-EU citizens**, until eventually somebody doing the EU lines realized there was quite a long line at non-EU and a 2nd person moved from the EU lines to non-EU.

          ** She's why I moved to Merka.

  4. John 98


    Money could have been spent on 60 more staff? This is twaddle! Nine million is not much to spend on learning to automate this task, which should ultimately be far cheaper (and more accurate) than human checking. BTW I knew a guy who stuck a picture of King Kong on his MOD pass and was never once challenged whilst successfully entering various "high security" areas for over a year

    1. Miek

      Re: Garbage

      Perhaps he resembled King Kong?

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge
      Thumb Down

      Re: Garbage

      Perhaps you might like to look at the history of facial recognition. 4 decades? 5 Decades? IIRC some systems reported false negatives between the passport holder and the (machine readable) picture *in* their passport

      BTW this was meant to be a deployment of *developed* hardware off the shelf.

      *not* an R&D exercise.

      You don't by any chance work for a company developing this technology do you? Obviously if it proves as hard as facial recognition then you've got a lifelong career ahead of you.


    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Garbage

      True fact: Over 98% of urban legends start with the phrase "I knew a guy who".

      1. Neil Spellings

        Re: Garbage

        I knew a guy who used to quote statistics about how urban legends start under the guise of "true facts"

        1. Field Marshal Von Krakenfart

          Re: Garbage

          58.72% of all statistics are made up by people as they type...................

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    The last time I went through Heathrow (Jan 2012) two staff were standing by the entrance to the e-Gates lane turning all but a trickle of passengers away from them. I was disappointed because my wife had finally got her UK passport so this time, after several years, we could actually use them, and naturally being a bit of a geek, I wanted to use the gadgetry.

  6. kevin king
    Thumb Up

    Got to say i travel "a lot" (280 days last year) for business and use the E-gates all the time at Heathrow, never had a problem with its a quick and easy way to get through the airport. I suspect if you first encounter them it might be a bit of a hassle but with anything to do with airports it about managing the flow of people.

    1. James Micallef Silver badge

      When I was based in Amsterdam I traveled through Schiphol fairly regularly. They had Iris scanners as far back as at least 2006 and seemed to work pretty well. The gates were always open and never seemed to need to be either manned, monitored, or fenced off.

  7. NightFox

    Finally got to use them passing through Manchester last week, every other time they've been closed. End result was about two minutes to get through the actual gate compared to perhaps 15-20 seconds at the manned gate. And that's not included the queue caused by the slow-down of every traveller using the gates having to be shown which way round to hold their passport in the scanner, where to stand, where to look etc.

    1. Audrey S. Thackeray

      But does that 15-20 seconds at the manned gate do any good or is it just faster because they pretend to look at a document then nod you through?

      (I am in no way suggesting they are that slack, it just seems to me that with this sort of process, time taken per transaction is not the primary criterion for judging success).

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    IRIS definitely worked

    Given that normal queues were often long and slow moving, I was very glad to use IRIS, which worked fine for me. BTW, given the cost of pensions for the border agency ppl, 9m quid looks real cheap...

    1. thenim

      Re: IRIS definitely worked

      I agree, this is the only saving grace of flying in to Heathrow - it works a charm. Only on one or two occasions have the gates been fenced off with no apparent explanation (in nearly three years of regularly travelling through Heathrow).

      It is a government funded (i.e. outsourced) IT project, so the fact that it doesn't work 100% isn't really a surprise (name one government funded IT project that "just works"(TM)..)

      1. flingback

        Re: IRIS definitely worked

        I am in total agreement here myself. IRIS is/was brilliant - and was only let down by people who were either not registered or who simply didn't follow the instructions. I have had hours of queuing saved by IRIS and rate it far better than the biometric crap they replaced it with.

        When you consider the alternative - a mardy immigration official who, by and large, has the same attitude as the US Department of Border control (ie; go away, you're not welcome) I vote for technology every time. Has anyone actually seen the statistics as to how many "illegal" immigrants get through our airports versus the ports?

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    All hail the technology.

    Interesting to see even here people with blind faith in the technology, insisting we should automate the shit out of everything. That chief exec is all about making people feel the tech really does work. When in fact it doesn't. Hm.

    You know, there's a couple things horribly wrong here, all of which boil down to a complete failure to understand why we have that fancy tech --let's not forget humans invented this, there's no divine mandate to use or not-use any of it-- and how it works. The stuff either works, or it doesn't. Even though it is horribly complex. It might be even be randomised, meaning that when it fails to achieve its goals some percentage of the times it tries, we shrug and accept it. But in the end, we can /measure/ how well it functions. And we're not even trying.

    Notice that apparently nobody seriously field-tested this kit. It got shoved into production with questions only asked well afterward. And still people are harping on how wonderful the world will be when we finally work out how to make them do what they should do.

    These people fundamentally fail to understand that the objects passing through the scanners are people. I for one would choose not to be turned into an object by dint of fancy tech deployed in a degrading, dehumanising manner. We can also choose to not go that route, accept the consequences, and hire some more staff to "professionally" fondle up the occasional "suspect" traveler. It's so very last century, but it still is a valid choice.

    So, what should we do? I say we tone down the security circus. It really wasn't funny the first time but we let the cousins have their temper tantrum. If we insist we can keep on scanning luggage, but the belts/shoes/jackets rigamole needs to stop, along with just about all the restrictions on what you can take; fluids, nail clippers, all that. Might as well argue a jelly donut is too dangerous to take on a plane. Its energy density is higher than TNT, don't you know. Likewise, stop with dumping the passenger data in the information black hole operated by the cousins, stop the lists-of-badness sillyness, eat all that scaremongering rhetoric, relax, and learn how to do security the old-fashioned way.

    You know, with customs officers trained and able to pick out the needlessly nervous. Why is this valid? Why isn't this horribly backward? Because people aren't machines. They've been the same way for ages. The same boring old stinky, weak, icky, carbon-based lifeforms. Really bags of not-yet rotting meat with some left-over primordial soup sauce built right in. Squish'em and they leak, too. It's still people that make good and bad things happen. If you want to automate that, you're automating what it means to be human. Do you really want to do there?

    If so, well, I won't be stopping you but I'd wish you'd stop forcing me to go along. This was supposed to be a free country after all. Or is that too a quaint backward idea? Well then, let's automate the shit outta that too. "Meeting meat", indeed.

  10. Lee Dowling

    Just came through Stansted. The "electronic passports" channel is closed to under-18's (so no travelling parent or child can use it). When I fly with just my partner, she's Italian and doesn't have an electronic passport, so we go through the same security in case there's a problem (otherwise we'd just lose each other in the crowds, especially if she's carrying some document of mine or vice versa).

    Then, they are hardly ever open. When they are, and people are actively encouraged to use them, most of them don't have the right passport, aren't the right age, are travelling together, etc. Those who bypass those HUMAN checks to let them through the channel end up with "BOOP BOOP" and constantly calling for assistance and problems.

    I've never used one in my life, and had no idea we even had iris recognition operational, if I'm honest. I knew there were biometrics on my (and my daughter's) passport but all I did was send off a photo that was nowhere near useful for anything past bone structure or whatever.

    It just seems to me that it's a whole lot more trouble than it's worth. And you still have to employ people to push them through the correct channel and check for people evading the system and do other "normal" customs checks anyway, so what's the point? It's like the in-bank machines nowadays. You're paying someone to go down the queue and find people who can use them and then paying more people to help them use them, and then paying for the machines themselves, etc. You could have just stuck another person on the counter like you used to have, and be considered a more "friendly" bank than a bunch of robotic automatons.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      That is totally correct.

    2. Miek

      "I knew there were biometrics on my (and my daughter's) passport but all I did was send off a photo that was nowhere near useful for anything past bone structure or whatever."

      Sounds like you have a chipped passport that /*can*/ hold biometric data. By default only your photo and personal details are stored there. If you then get your fingerprints done or iris scanned; the biometric data can be put onto your passport.


    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      This is what I don't get either. I have a passport that will let me get through these gates apparently - it worked for me last time I landed at Birmingham. Some space age machine shone a light at my face and opened a gate for me. But I have never knowingly had an iris scan in my life so unless the border agency has somehow got optical records from my optician I'm at a loss to know how the machine recognised me unless it's using some kind of face recognition technology based on a very poor passport photo that doesn't look very much like me any more?

      Anyhow, the staff at Birmingham were determined to push as many of us through the machines as possible but it was no quicker than going through the manned gate.

  11. John Sager

    Tech not ready

    We encountered these at the airport in Madeira. It took two or three attempts before it read my passport, and then a false start with the camera in the booth. However it let me out eventually. A friend wasn't so lucky. He got in the booth, but then the face scan failed repeatedly, and he was in there for several minutes before someone let him out.

    This has been an exercise in greedy marketing by tech companies to paranoid and clueless civil servants with even more paranoid and clueless ministers breathing down their necks.

  12. The Jase
    Black Helicopters


    But how do they feel about the Perv-O-Tron and going through it?

    1. Evil Auditor

      Re: Perv-O-Tron

      Just the same: in some cases staff actively discourage passengers from using them. Cos who wants to see the lardy chunk?

  13. Oli 1

    funnily enough

    i just got back to the UK, via gatwick. All operational, and a nice lady trying to persuade people to use it, but everyone (few infront of me and few behind) all gave excxuses not to use it.

    I dont have a bio passport yet, nor do i want one, but my mum and sister do. My mum has not once managed to get through without it locking her in the gate and someone being called in to check her details manually and release her from the improtu jail. she's been given any number of ridiculous excuses including my favourite (definetly not hers) "you're getting on now love so maybe your eyes have changed since your scans were taken" she nearly smacked the "Immigration Officer" in the face for that one.

    just get rid of the damned things, and lets employ some people for once. not just find ways of replacing everyone with a gadget.

    <rant over>

  14. nsld

    IRIS is excellent

    I have on several occassions when arriving late into Heathrow wandered straight to the empty IRIS queue and been through, done and on my way to the car, far more efficient than waiting in line for the person to check it.

    Of course they have a fear of automation, it means they need less people.

  15. The BigYin

    Why would automation be favoured by the workers?

    "Dear Border Check Underlings,

    It has come to our attention that some of you think the automation of your jobs is a bad thing. Nothing could be further from the truth. Automating your job means that my pals make many millions from selling us crap...err...hi-tech machinery.

    With these machines we can then fire...err...engage in personnel efficiencies and thus my pals who own the airports can make many more millions.

    There is no need to worry about public safety, I certainly don't, and there is no profit in public contentment for my pals. They need the public in a state of fear so we can justify buying more stuff.

    So please support this programme of making my pals loads of money so I can get a nice fat directorship and maybe the odd bungs.

    Yours in aloofness,

    A. N. Other (MP)"

  16. Harry the Bastard

    iris is lovely

    it'll be a sad day when the last ones are taken out of action

    simple, fast, reliable, i wear contact lenses or glasses, no issues, iris just works

    the appalling lack of signage is the only complaint i have with iris, but from the article it sounds like that's deliberate

    the long lines of people at the egates, and high failure rate (i stood in the queue with non-iris gf, wathcing the misery of the egate users), are worrying, seems like a step back in reliability

  17. JaitcH

    Why is it that government continues to buy bad technology and yet ...

    never seems to go back and reclaim their (the taxpayers) money back?

    If this happened in a civil setting either businesses supplying to business or to retail customers there would be hell to pay. Many years ago Crown Agents acted as inspectors for overseas governments and they were tough. They ALWAYS made sure their clients got exactly what they were paying for.

    On a couple of occasions they caught my department short and it was always compliance or no acceptance.

    Pity the UK government doesn't use them.

    These days often the government rep who signs off on a deal is hired by the supplier/

    1. Someone Else Silver badge

      Re: Why is it that government continues to buy bad technology and yet ...

      'Cuz, if they were to demand recompense for non-conformance, they wouldn't get their cushy, fatass job onthe board of Directors of these same companies when they "retired" (read: got their fatass booted out).

      Next question?

  18. LOL123

    Best of both worlds?

    Last time in Heathrow my wait was about an hour and a half. So if the tech makes things faster, I'm all for it.

    How about the gates opening into the normal manned queues if validation fails, and if it does, the exit queue?

    Would help everyone, and speed up things as well. The non-tech savvy, non-bio passport holders go into the manned queue and wait, the tech-savvy, bio-passport holders get into the exit queue and leave.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      How about...

      ... stop playing with the fancy expensive machines that won't work properly, and simply open up more queues, with highly trained people motivated for a job they can see actually does something useful? Why the hassle with various classes of citizen depending on how well they fit the machinery, and instead focus on the job instead of the technology? Wasn't it about the passengers, originally, maybe?

  19. stuartrc

    Iris was not the most user friendly of systems but what it was fantastic for was allowing you to bypass the queues of holiday makers if you travelled regularly.

    I am disappointed by the lack of efforts to get e-gates up and running in the UK. I travel regular to Finland and they have a bank of e-gates for non schengen vistors which have never been less that faultless. The Finnish implementation of passport reader does seem better than the UK's though - no silly stand here signs and the photo unit was much quicker.

    The thing everyone seems to be missing is although the individual machines are slower than a passport check, the ability to have lots of them and no reliance on the work ethic of UKBA means your aggreate journey time thorugh the airport is going to be much quickerwith e-gates which is a win for me.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    IRIS is great but...

    The system in Hong Kong is better. As a registered user but not a Hong Kong resident I can use my fingerprint/passport combination and I'm through in seconds. Always working, unlike IRIS and the Chip passport scanners.

    Still UK government make a total cock up on an IT system, what a surprise.

    1. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Re: IRIS is great but...

      "The system in Hong Kong is better. As a registered user but not a Hong Kong resident I can use my fingerprint/passport combination and I'm through in seconds. Always working, unlike IRIS and the Chip passport scanners."


      You can't fault the police hardware in a police state.

      1. Cpt Blue Bear

        Re: IRIS is great but...

        Well you could, but you never seem to hear of anyone doing so...

  21. Yet Another AC

    Rubbish UK implementation

    I happen to have both Australian & UK e-passports, am enrolled in IRIS (since it went live) plus the Hong Kong e-Channel so can kinda compare. As other posters have said, IRIS just works every time and HK entry (barcode & fingerprint scan) can't be any quicker or easier.

    The AU e-passport (face scan) works reliably (in NZ too) and you're through immigration in as much time as IRIS. So I imagined my UK passport on a UK e-gate would be no different..

    Only once have I seen LHR e-gates open, and it worked.. but took so damn long to decide there's zero hope of deflating queues. The UK implementation seems either deliberately hobbled or just crap.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Of course IRIS is getting canned and criticised...

    ... It's a government IT project that actually worked. That can't be allowed.

    I'll really miss it. It was spot on every time.

    and no... I've never seen the e-gates at Heathrow open either

  23. Winkypop Silver badge


    Only terrorists need to cross borders!

    I saw it on FAUX News

  24. Trygve

    IRIS wasn't THAT great...

    For me at least, it failed 100% of the time when I was wearing glasses, which I often do when on late/early flights. There were typically only two gates in each terminal, with a serviceability rate of ~50%. You could only register between half-past never and twenty-five to elsewhen. And once it came out of 'pilot' phase the number of people using the system grew way past what the system could support. Having said that, it was a genuinely useful addition, because it gave you two queues to choose from and it generally worked (even while showing a PCAnywhere error popup on the screen).

    The new e-gates seem to be just unmitigated bollox. They are so keen on cramming people through that the queues are usually slower than for the normal desks and they seem to be working on a manning system of 1 or 2 people to usher people in plus 2 dedicated desks to handle the 'rejects' - all to achieve a throughput similar to what you'd get from ~2 normal passport officers. Typical British 'improvement'.

  25. Anonymous Custard Silver badge
    Thumb Down

    One more IRIS fan here...

    I must admit I didn't know it was being phased out in lieu of the e-gates, although I did see that the IRIS at Gatwick North had vanished (I fly usually a couple of times a month, but usually via South).

    In all the years of it, I think I've only known IRIS down a few times, and for me it never gave problems at all (although I do tend to take my glasses off by habit now before entering). The only annoyance was of course people trying to use it who weren't registered (including at least one chap who went in waving his passport around, then spent a couple of minutes in there working out where to put it and of course ignoring the machine's voice).

    That compared with the twice I've now been through the e-Gates, both of which have had problems (long queues, people in said queue without e-passports even when they've been told by the LGW staff that they're required, Gates going down and needing reboot seemingly once every 5 minutes) plus the general utter confusion on how to work the damn things at all, how long to hold your passport on the first scan, how to hold it (iPassport? ;) ) and overall what the hell to do.

    Come back IRIS, all is most definitely forgiven by this tired business traveller...

    1. Anonymous Custard Silver badge

      Re: One more IRIS fan here...

      OK, so I'm having a backwards morning - swap North and South around in the above...

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