The new US passport certainly catches the eye with colourful patriotic images. But less obvious – and more controversial – is the small rectangular symbol on the cover that reveals it to be an “e-passport”, complete with RFID chip containing biometric data of the holder.

The US is taking a lead in using biometrics to identify first foreign visitors and now its own citizens. The move is pushing many other countries into adopting e-passports.

Such traveller security schemes have become feasible after improvements in biometrics technologies to the point where they can be deployed on a large scale.

“Costs have come down and accuracy has improved so you can now consider using biometrics,” says Jim Williams, director of US-Visit, the best-known biometrics programme, which has digitised the fingerprints and faces of more than 56m foreign visitors to the US since 2004.

Now that biometrics technology has finally shaken off its James Bond connotations, it is also being used to identify citizens in their day-to-day dealings with bureaucracy, as well as in commerce.

International Biometrics Group, a specialist consultancy, predicts global biometric revenues will grow from $2.1bn this year to $5.7bn in 2010.

Fingerprint recognition is the most widely used method, accounting for 43 per cent of the market, according to IBG. Being fingerprinted is associated with criminality and so a growing number of alternatives are being developed.

Iris scans are more accurate than fingerprints, says Cyrille Bataller, senior manager of Accenture’s Technology Laboratories.

And VoxGen, a UK company, sees big potential in voiceprint technology, particularly in telephone banking. “Using speech to identify people is fairly new, although like any other biometric, it’s not 100 per cent accurate,” says Simon Loopuit, chief executive.

Voiceprints therefore work better as an additional authentication mechanism rather than principal means of identification. For example, Mr Loopuit envisages callers seeking to access account information having their voiceprint authenticated before they can transfer funds. He claims that not even professional imitators have managed to fool VoxGen’s system.

And if a criminal should be holding a gun to the head of the account holder, the latest speech technology can detect stress in a voice and alert the call centre.

Financial institutions are showing interest, says Mr Loopuit, because the system automates time-consuming manual processes, bringing significant potential savings. For a 1,000-seat call centre, for example, he puts it at more than £2m a year.

Another new biometric is face recognition. FaceKey, a US company, sees potential in this technology for controlling access to buildings and monitoring attendance.

But the technology lost some credibility after a 2002 report on a trial by two other companies at Boston’s Logan Airport found that recognition rates among the airport crowds were too low.

Yevgeny Levitov, president of FaceKey, says crowd surveillance is too demanding for today’s 2-D face recognition systems and newer 3-D technologies are still immature.

However, 2-D technology does work in a controlled setting such as building access. And by combining face recognition with another biometric, such as fingerprints, error rates reduce to an acceptable level, he argues.

Nevertheless, in a large-scale application such as an airport, even a seemingly small error rate of one in 1,000 is going to produce many false positives a day.

“Accuracy is getting better but it is still not at the level that many would like,” says Friso Buker, homeland security consultant at Frost & Sullivan, the US research firm.

“Biometrics is still not where we need it to be,” admits Mr Williams of US-Visit. “But when we started the project we needed to get something out there rather than wait for something better.”

He explains that the accuracy of the US-Visit system is being upgraded to record all 10 fingerprints instead of the two index fingers originally used. Critics claim this suggests the project was conceived in haste using stop-gap technologies.

The more fundamental question is whether the $7bn that US-Visit will spend on technology in the next few years will really keep terrorists at bay.

Accenture, the lead contractor to US-Visit argues – not surprisingly – that it will, although Jim Stolarski, US-Visit project leader with the consultancy, warns against seeing biometrics as a panacea: “US-Visit is just one of several security layers and we will continue to rely on human judgment as well for years to come.”

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