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It is now extremely common to see biometric passport controls in major airports, which completely eliminates the need to talk to an immigration officer. However at all the machines I've seen one still needs to present a biometric passport or ID card, even though theoretically the government stores everyone's biometrics in a global database.

As of 2017, is there at least one country/airport in the world where one can go through passport control without showing any forms of ID? Or perhaps a system like that is planned somewhere?

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    Comparing the biometric features of the person passing the checkpoint with biometric data stored on a presented passport and decide if there is a match or not is one thing. Not all countries keep a copy of the biometric data in a centralized database, but even if they did, doing a lookup in such a database and getting a deterministic single hit without human verification of the result is technically unlikely feasible. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Aug 21 '17 at 9:09
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    Note that passports can but typically do not have any iris data on them. Speaking about my passport in particular, fingerprints are recorded in a central database but not used during regular border checks. The picture is not centrally recorded but this is in fact what's used in all the automatic passport gates I have used in recent months (at Schiphol but also in a few other countries). – Relaxed Aug 21 '17 at 9:09
  • @Tor-EinarJarnbjo I was thinking about the second point. It's obviously technically completely feasible but are you aware of a country that does not keep at least some of the data? I was not able to come up with an example but would be interested to find one. – Relaxed Aug 21 '17 at 9:12
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    @Relaxed At least Germany and Norway store only the holder's picture as a regular image file and not in a format allowing any biometric search in the data. All other biometric data is only stored on the passport chip. In Germany, the image file is not even stored in a centralized database, but only with the local issuing authority. – Tor-Einar Jarnbjo Aug 21 '17 at 10:16
  • If you are allowed to enter the country by providing iris or fingerprint scans, then how is that not showing some form of ID? – a CVn Aug 21 '17 at 14:54
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As luck may have it, I've found such a system after posting my question.

Iris Recognition Immigration System (IRIS) was an initiative, launched in 2004 to provide automated clearance through UK immigration for certain frequent travellers. It functioned in "one-to-all" identification mode, searching a large database of some million enrolled frequent travellers to see if anyone matched the presenting iris. The passenger was not asked to assert any identity, e.g. by presenting a Passport or ID card which would then require only a "one-to-one" verification test against that single enrolled identity. Thus IRIS exploited the great robustness of iris recognition against making False Matches, since (unlike weak biometrics such as face recognition) it could survive the vast number of opportunities to make False Matches when searching a large database, instead of only needing to test just a single asserted identity.

Unfortunately it was decommissioned by the UK back in 2013:

It was decommissioned in September 2013 in favour of e-passport entry using biometric data stored on the e-passport chip, which requires only a single asserted identity to be tested and thus could function using weaker biometrics in the simple "one-to-one" verification mode.

The biggest problem seems to have been the need to collect iris scans from all applicants:

But the main factor behind the decision to decommission IRIS was the cost of staffing the enrolment offices in airport terminals, whereas face recognition only required submitting a Passport-type photograph acquired in a photo-booth without the need for personal presentation to airport enrolment staff.

We might see a comeback of the technology once iris scans are routinely collected from all citizens when they are issued a biometric passport. Until then fingerprint and facial recognition technologies are too slow and have too many false positives in order to be used for comparisons against a database of all citizens.

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    I mentioned this in our earlier discussion but the last paragraph is actually pure fiction. The Wikipedia article you quoted mentions one country that started collecting such data (the Aadhaar system in India) but passports do not generally contain iris data nor are they collected when issuing biometric passports. And I am not aware of any plans to move towards that in Europe. – Relaxed Aug 21 '17 at 10:17
  • @Relaxed India doesn't even have regular e-gates yet. I don't think speeding up immigration processes is a big priority for them. I would expect small countries like Norway or Czech Republic to be the first to implement this once iris scans are the global standard for biometrics. – JonathanReez Aug 21 '17 at 10:21
  • @Relaxed also note that India is currently checking the system for duplicates whenever new people sign up for the Aadhaar card, supposedly on the scale of 1 million verifications per day back during the biggest sign up wave. So it would only be a question of how fast the system processed a single person - unfortunately I couldn't find the numbers through a quick search. – JonathanReez Aug 21 '17 at 11:43
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    You're writing “once” as if it was already underway but neither Norway nor the Czech Republic are collecting the data and I am not aware of any plans to make that a global standard anytime soon. Note that the main use case for e-passports is fighting false passports and fraud (using someone else's passport) – not automatic identification – and this required significant investment. I would be surprised if you see any big change for a generation or more. – Relaxed Aug 21 '17 at 12:13
  • On the other hand, I don't necessarily expect India to roll automatic passport gates soon but they are collecting the data right now. Introducing some sort of automatic border control is relatively simpler. – Relaxed Aug 21 '17 at 12:14
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If you have a Nexus card, this is how you enter the US from Canada, or Canada from anywhere. You go to a machine, push a few buttons, look into the lens so your iris can be recognized, and are given a little receipt which you can show people as you leave the area. You are supposed to carry your Nexus card (and it saves you from having to carry your passport) but in the normal course of events you will not need to show either one to a human or put either one into a machine. It's all done by your iris.

I have done this more times than I can count. I have been doing so for ten years, and it is only this year that I got an enhanced passport with a chip in it. My passport doesn't include iris information - I know because I didn't give them any.

  • Is the iris scan stored anywhere other than on the card (see my comment about Privium)? – phoog Aug 21 '17 at 13:53
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    it must be, since I don't have to use my card to use the kiosk. – Kate Gregory Aug 21 '17 at 13:56
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    @JonathanReez, at the land border you still talk to an IO. The only difference is that, if you are driving, the cards are read before you get to the booth so the IO doesn't necessarily bother looking at them; his computer knows who should be in the car. – Dennis Aug 21 '17 at 17:35
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    @KateGregory, Do you carry your NEXUS card without the copper-lined envelope that came with it? I've entered at YVR, YYC and YYZ with the card and at those airports the machines do nothing at all until I take the card out of the envelope. It may be that it can read the card at a distance (the RFID is long distance, not the Near-Field version used for passports and credit cards) but at those airports it definitely relies on the card's presence to get to the point where it scans one's eyes. – Dennis Aug 21 '17 at 18:40
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    The Canadian NEXUS machines in the airports I've been to have never worked like that; they work like this (see steps 3-5). The NEXUS machines in US preclearance used to work like that but I haven't seen one of those in years; they now only have GE machines, which take a document (which may be a NEXUS card) and scan finger prints, in the airports I've flown from. In which airport does the US still have NEXUS machines? – Dennis Aug 21 '17 at 20:30
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The Privium system at Amsterdam airport does not require you to insert your passport in the machine or to show it to anybody. You do need a special Privium card, which contains the biometrics data, and are still supposed to have your passport with you, obviously. Enrolment in this system is voluntary (and starts at €121 per year). The regular automated passport control at Schiphol works differently and do rely on the passport's optical machine readable zone.

There are advantages to the use of passports for automated border checks: You don't need to install and secure widespread access to a sensitive database and you can support passports from other countries (for which you don't have access to any central database). In fact, you don't need any central biometrics database at all, which has clear security and privacy benefits.

Generally speaking, note that matching a person to a known set of biometrics (whether you read them from a chip or look them up in a database based on name and date of birth or a special identification badge) is a completely different problem than a wide search through a large biometrics database. The latter is significantly slower and brings up many false positives with the data available now (picture of the face and fingerprints). It can be used for investigation purposes, for things like asylum applications and in a few other contexts but it would not be practical for automated border checks.

Importantly, not all countries retain the data that's on the passport. And when they do, they do not always keep all the data, what they keep might not be centralised, or it might not be available for automated processing. Apart from India, it seems that no country systematically collects iris data either. Considering all this, it seems that your question is based on a rather optimistic (or pessimistic, depending on how you feel about all this) view of the state of biometric data collection and processing.

  • I do agree that it would be impractical - after all, if you're arriving from a destination abroad you obviously have an ID on your person. But it could be a cool feature for an airport to have, kind of a demonstration of technical capabilities. – JonathanReez Aug 21 '17 at 9:31
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    @JonathanReez I meant that it wouldn't work. It would be a demonstration of technical capabilities all right, but nobody has those capabilities. – Relaxed Aug 21 '17 at 9:32
  • You have to have an ID first before the gate opens (from what I remember on my last trip). So without this ID I think the system doesn't actually work. Once you are in the secure area of the gate, you just scan your biometrics. Either way it is impractical to use biometric only data as its notoriously slow to search using it. You need a secondary key. The other problem is that biometrics only do authentication and not authorization on most systems. That is, they only tell who you are not if you are authorized for the action. The authority is still stored in the "smart card" PKI systems. – Burhan Khalid Aug 21 '17 at 9:39
  • @BurhanKhalid I cover the bit about biometrics search in the last paragraph. In practice, for passport checks, authorisation is based on citizenship, not on any smart card system. But are you a Privium member? – Relaxed Aug 21 '17 at 9:46
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    @JonathanReez at least when it started, Privium had no database of iris scans, because of concerns about data security. The passengers iris scan is stored only on the privium card, and the stored scan is compared to the fresh scan recorded at the gate to verify that the person presenting the card is the same person to whom the card was issued. So this doesn't really satisfy your question. – phoog Aug 21 '17 at 13:52
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Earlier this year Australia announced plans for a contactless passenger identification system:

Australia is planning to adopt a new contactless passenger identification system that would eliminate the need for passport scanners, paper landing cards and manned immigration desks, the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection has announced.

However:

It is unclear exactly how the new contactless system would work. In fact, even the Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection seems unsure how its new system will actually function.

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