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Fingerprints, iris scans to tighten U.K. borders

Country to implement controversial biometric program to capture, review and store data about immigrants. Photos: Biometric systems stand guard

The United Kingdom plans to implement a controversial biometric system to record the fingerprints of immigrants coming into the country.

In a move that's likely to raise the political stakes on the issue of immigration, Home Secretary Charles Clarke announced on Monday that all visa applicants will be fingerprinted once they arrive at U.K. ports of entry.

The fingerprinting procedure is expected to be in place by 2008.

In addition to the biometric rollout, the U.K. government will be putting in place "electronic borders," similar to the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program.

The e-borders system, which began on a trial basis in December 2004 on a few selected routes, will run for 39 months and will be replaced with a full implementation at the end of the trial.

The e-borders system will capture, review and store data about immigrants on travel routes. In addition to giving arrival and departure information, carriers will be obliged to submit information about their passengers to U.K. authorities before the travelers' arrival.

The names will be cross-referenced against existing databases of banned individuals and passenger name records--which hold personal data--and will be measured against risk scales to determine if the visitor is thought to pose a threat.

"The database of information and increasing collection of biometric data will make it harder for people to conceal their identity," according to the U.K. Home Office report.

Iris scanning will also make an appearance in the e-borders system. Certain travelers will be allowed to pass through immigration faster by undergoing an iris scan.

The implementation of the biometric technology will start at some terminals in Heathrow Airport on Feb. 28. Gatwick, Birmingham, Manchester and Stansted airports will have the technology by the end of the year.

Clarke also announced that electronic tagging will be used to keep track of immigrants whose applications are turned down.

The controversial plan will include a points system to favor immigrants with job skills considered vital to the United Kingdom, such as teachers and information technology workers.

Jo Best of reported from London.