A Reporter's Insight into Britain's Airport Security;

For a couple of hours I thought I had beaten the brand new multi-million pound biometric scanning system at Birmingham airport, part of a Government security overhaul brought in at great expense to crack down on illegal immigration, organised crime and...


As I approached airport security and handed over my invalid documentation to the burly guard with a fake smile over my face, my nerves were starting to get the better of me.

But after a cursory glance and a brief body search, he waved me through into the restricted staff area of the airport, and I was in.

Here I was, inside the high-security section, with open access to airport staff and equipment, without a single legal document revealing my true identity - and a Government minister within striking distance.

But, luckily for the security of the Western world, this was a Monday morning in Birmingham, not The Day of the Jackal, and my espionage fantasies didn't last long.

For a couple of hours I thought I had beaten the brand new multi-million pound biometric scanning system at Birmingham airport, part of a Government security overhaul brought in at great expense to crack down on illegal immigration, organised crime and terrorism.

I had been at the airport to see Immigration Minister and Hodge Hill MP Liam Byrne officially open the Iris Recognition Immigration System (IRIS), an ultramodern solution to immigration control.

IRIS scans passengers' eyes, and checks them against a national database of iris patterns - each one completely different, even among identical twins.

People on the register can use high-tech eye scanning booths to skip long queues at pass port checks at Birmingham when arriving in or leaving the country.

Nearly three hundred travellers have already signed up to use IRIS at Birmingham in the few weeks since the scheme was unofficially launched.

As I stepped into the booth, recently used by the minister to enter his own details onto the national database, I clutched a passport nervously in my hand. A pallid, student's face stared back at me from the photograph page. It was months out of date.

John, the man running the registration office, didn't say a thing, just looked at the booklet, then invited me to look into the machine which would record my eyes and put me on the "safe list" for flying in the future.

But it turned out later they had been on to me all along. An immigration officer told me it was only because I wasn't planning to travel that they didn't point out my out-of-date passport.

The IRIS system is mainly aimed at regular flyers looking to save time, and people travelling to the UK from outside the EU, who can often spend a long time queuing to have their passport checked.

Mr Byrne said IRIS would also help to fight organised crime and illegal immigration, as well as making life easier for regular travellers.

"We have to dramatically increase the strength of our borders," he said. "IRIS is extremely secure because it locks you down to a single identity. The vast majority of travellers are going legally, and they want to move faster."

Retired financial advisor Barbara Meddings, 67, from Worcester, flies to her holiday home in Malaga three or four times a year.

She signed up for the IRIS scheme yesterday, and said it would make it much quicker for her to get in and out of airports.

"I think it's going to speed up going in through the check in system," she said.

"And I'm hoping that if anyone stole my passport, it might help the people at the airport to spot that it's someone else."

Mrs Meddings was worried the procedure might not work, because she had had surgery on a detached retina earlier this year.

But the IRIS system is virtually foolproof. It works with people who are blind, or who wear spectacles and coloured contact lenses. It's not surprising BIA is expecting thousands more in the near future to sign up for the iris-scanning scheme.

Mr Byrne said the Government was keen to introduce IRIS, adding: "We have got a very simple goal: a world where the good can travel faster and the bad fear to travel. This system will help that."

This content continues onto the next page...

We Recommend