Will Biometrics Help in the War on Terrorism?

The recent anniversary of September 11th reminds us that terrorist attacks and threats have risen across the world. Consequently, governments and local and international authorities have invested more resources to secure their borders and their ID documents with the objective of:

  • Controlling the entry and exit of people across borders, and
  • Protecting and authenticating citizen’s identity within the country.

To reinforce the security of a nation, it is important to be able to identify travellers as well as a country’s citizens. This is where ID documents have an important role to play.

It was previously thought that using physical / traditional security features on ID documents was more than enough to prevent ID counterfeiting and forgery attempts, protect the data and authenticate the documents and the identity of the document holders. But today, we face new criminal behaviors in the illegal trade of ID documents. Recent statistics show a rise in fraud all over the world. In fact, according to INTERPOL, 185 passports are stolen or lost every day.

Counterfeited or falsified IDs have also become more and more sophisticated with new technologies and equipment to create false documents. Meanwhile, genuine ID documents are stolen by criminals and either sold to a new owner who looks like the true document holder, or filled-out with an individual's details when blank.

Since these security features alone do not completely protect the identity of the holder, more measures must be taken to make the ID documents more difficult to forge, alter or falsify and to avoid the use of "look alike" passports. This is where biometrics can help to tie an authentic document to an individual.

The physical characteristics or personal traits of a person are unique and an infallible form of identification. They are mostly unchangeable and can be identified very quickly. Biometrics use a person's physical characteristics – finger prints, iris or retina patterns, facial characteristics, even voice prints – to verify the identity of a person.

Since biometric data is unique for each user, it is a very powerful tool that can be used to protect identity documents from counterfeits, falsification and tampering, as well as the look-alike phenomena.

A general enrollment system usually consists of registering the highest quality image templates in a database and the chip, if present. During the control process, travellers’ biometric data can be collected on the spot and compared to the data stored in the chip or in the database.

In counterfeited and tampered documents, the biometric data of the ID holder will not be registered, or it will be different from the enrolled data. For stolen genuine ID documents, which are often used by terrorists to enter countries, biometrics eliminate the ability for someone to use a genuine document that was issued to someone else.

Today, all European Union (EU) passports must include biometric data.  In addition to that, the European Commission has proposed to add two types of biometric data in the ID cards of EU citizens to further safeguard their identities.

The ability to authenticate a person correctly at border control stations and within a country can reduce the risk of false identities and prevent the entry of criminals. Although attacks cannot be avoided, biometrics can help to reinforce proper identification, prevent fraud and be an effective counter-terrorism tool.