Osama bin Laden and Winona Ryder: airport face scanners reportedly cannot tell the difference Photo: GETTY; EPA
Airport face scanners designed to verify travellers’ identity against their passport photographs are working at such a low level that they would be unable to tell the difference between Osama bin Laden and the actress Winona Ryder, it has been claimed.
By Duncan Gardham
In a leaked memo, an official says the machines have been recalibrated to an “unacceptable” level meaning travellers whose faces are shown to have only a 30 per cent likeness to their passport photographs can pass through.
The machines, undergoing trials at Manchester airport, have apparently been questioning so many passengers’ identities that they were creating huge queues.
The technology was designed to help immigration officials spot people traveling under false passports, particularly terrorists, but the multi-million pound scheme now appears to be in jeopardy.
In the email, the official says: “Update on the calibration – the facial recognition booths are letting passengers through at 30%.
“Changes appear to have been made without any explanation [or] giving anyone a reason for the machines [creating] what is in effect a 70% error rate.
“[The fact that] the machines do not operate at 100% is unacceptable. In addition it would be interesting to know why the acceptance level has been allowed to decrease.”
Rob Jenkins, an expert in facial recognition at Glasgow University’s psychology department, said lowering the match level to 30 per cent would make the system almost worthless.
Using facial recognition software from Sydney airport in Australia set at 30 per cent, he found the machines could not tell the difference between Osama bin Laden and the actors Kevin Spacey or even the actress Winona Ryder while Gordon Brown was indistinguishable from Mel Gibson.
Announcing a trial of five of the devices at Manchester airport last August, Jacqui Smith, the Home Secretary, said they would improve security by making it more difficult for terrorists using false passports.
At the moment the technology is only being used on British and European travelers on “high risk” flights but it is planned to extend the technology to almost all non-European Union citizens by the end of 2010.
Patrick Mercer, chairman of the House of Commons subcommittee on counter-terrorism, said he would be asking the UK Borders agency about the warnings.
The Home Office said: “We can categorically confirm that the gates are making the same high level of checks on the British and European passengers using them as they were when the trials began in August last year.
“Previous tests show that they system can reliably pick out imposters and even distinguish between identical twins. An immigration officer supervises the whole process and will intervene where necessary.”