Dutch government turns to biometrics to ID immigrants

As technology made passports and other identification documents harder to forge, authorities have seen fraud by sharing of original documents increase, Interior ministry spokesman Frank van Beers said Wednesday.

"Passport photos aren't good enough to determine a person's identity, especially where it concerns people of different ethnic backgrounds," he said.

In Rotterdam, 250 people from ethnic minorities will have their irises scanned. The data from that procedure, unique for every person, will be stored on a chip card. The person's identity can then be confirmed by inserting the card into a terminal followed by a scan of the iris.

Scanning of the iris is done by looking into a special camera behind a plate of glass. The people involved have all recently arrived in the Netherlands and are waiting to hear if they can stay. While waiting, they have to report to the local police every month. The scanning project means that it will become impossible to send a family member or friend with similar looks.

Another project involves facial scans of participants in a mandatory course for newcomers in the Netherlands who have been granted a permit to stay. Characteristics like distance between the eyes and the size of the face are measured and stored on a chip.

In 2003, all Dutch citizens with European Union (EU) identification cards will have unique biometric data stored in a chip. These cards are travel documents for use within the EU only. Passports will also get a chip, but a date has yet to be set, Van Beers said. The biometric information will not be centrally stored in a database, only on the chip, he stressed.

The trials are conducted with immigrants because they have to report to the police regularly. This facilitates the testing of the systems, Van Beers said.

"For now we are only talking about testing technology," he said, adding that Unisys will be the technology partner in the trials. Van Beers declined to specify how much money is involved in the trials, saying only that several parties are providing funds.

Gathering biometric data requires special equipment. In 1999, the market for biometric equipment drew about US$166 million in revenue. This figure is expected to reach $US1.8 billion in 2004, according to market research firm IDC.

According to IDC, biometrics systems are often assumed to be used as security checkpoints for physical access to an area, but the technology is increasingly used for computer network security.

In the future, the Dutch chip cards could also be used for online identification, or as an electronic signature, Van Beers said.

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