Biometric answer to ID fraud has limits: expert

LONDON (Reuters) - The advent of the electronic frontier will limit the kind of identity fraud perpetrated by the killers of a Hamas commander in Dubai but will not eradicate the practice entirely, a border security expert says.

While biometric identification is increasingly robust, realities such as graft and the needs of spies mean the use of false travel documents will endure, Frank Gregory, Professor of European Security at Britain’s Southampton University, said.

Developers of biometrics -- the computerized recognition of features such as fingerprints, irises and faces being introduced by rich countries -- and fraudsters were in a perpetual race to get ahead of one another’s technology, Gregory told Reuters.

“It’s a constant catch up,” he said, adding intelligence services around the world were believed to use several tactics to thwart biometric barriers so as to move staff across borders.

“It’s not your routine type of forgery. We’re talking about sophisticated technology and a capability of the kind you might assume a state sponsored body would have,” he said.

Dubai suspects Israeli agents were involved in the killing of Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh at a Dubai hotel in January. Members of the hit squad used fraudulent passports from Britain, Ireland, Germany, France and Australia. Residents of Israel, dual passport holders with the same names as the suspects, say their identities appear to have been stolen.


Gregory said in an interview it was hard to reproduce exactly the same eyes or fingerprints as someone else. But thin, transparent latex versions of fingerprints worn on the finger being scanned, for example, “may well work”, especially if a border control officer was not looking carefully.

The need to keep travelers moving in an age of mass transit meant there was a trade-off between passenger “flow” and the personal attention a border control officer could give to a single case.

Gregory said biometrics was about “raising barriers”.

“It’s like the beginnings of the changeover from signing a bank check to smart bank cards. You’re building in more requirements for proof of identity that the would-be forger or thief has got to overcome to be a credible entrant.”

But with border security, simple corruption was a perennial weakness that helped to make absolute security impossible.

“You can obtain a passport in another name in many countries which are corrupt...Providing you match whatever data is on the passport (you’ll get through),” Gregory said. “The concept of a fortress country practically doesn’t exist.”

Analysts note that biometric identification depends on the quality of the database against which a sample is matched. That archive is created from the user’s initial registration - the giving of a fingerprint sample or a photograph of an iris.

If a person registers using fraudulent identity documents, the system is compromised from the outset.

Some analysts say biometrics could eventually catch out anyone who tries to use a false identity to work in a country they once visited in their youth, for example on holiday.

Gregory suggested that possibility lay far in the future.

“You’re making the assumption that at the time you went in as a young person, that kind of data was recorded and stored and retrievable. We’re only just entering the days of the electronic border, aren’t we?”

Reporting by William Maclean, editing by Philippa Fletcher