Analysis: Biometric passports, iris scanners, worry undercover spooks

Biometric passportBy JOSEPH FITSANAKIS | |
False passports are to intelligence operatives what petrol is to automobiles. In the absence of forged travel documentation, intelligence officers working undercover are unable to operate internationally without revealing their identity. This is why, traditionally, intelligence operatives are known to “use and discard false passports like hand wipes”, in the words of one knowledgeable source. But according to a fascinating article by veteran intelligence correspondent Jeff Stein, authored for Wired magazine’s Danger Room blog, “the day of the trench-coated spy easily slipping in and out of countries on false papers multiple times [may be] coming to an end”. The reason is “the electronic curtain [that] is descending all over the world”, most notably the increasing deployment of iris recognition devices and biometric passports at airports and hotels around the world, says Stein. Over the coming decade, iris scanners, which employ mathematical pattern-recognition techniques to identify individuals by their irides, will become increasingly common at international airports. The same applies to biometric passports, namely travel documents with embedded microchips that store a massive amount of personal information. These technologies are ostensibly being introduced in international transport hubs in order to combat transnational terrorism and organized crime. But they are also expected to heavily interfere with the work of undercover intelligence operatives, says Stein, especially as they are being introduced in popular spy routes, in countries such as India, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, as well as in several European Union entry points. He quotes an unnamed “career spook” currently working for the Central Intelligence Agency as a consultant, who explains that an undercover officer’s biometric identity will be forever linked to the passport that he or she first uses to enter these countries. If the officer were to try to enter these countries again, using a different alias, alarm bells will ring: “you can’t show up again under a different name with the same data”, says the CIA consultant. What is the solution to this looming predicament for the world’s intelligence agencies? Stein’s article quotes several anonymous sources, who claim that agencies like the CIA are already beginning to put emphasis on “recruiting spies in foreign border-control agencies” —that is, individuals with access to immigration databases, who have the ability to tamper with the system from the inside. It is worth noting that Stein was told by a former director of an American intelligence agency that “publish[ing] anything on this [issue would] do a lot of harm and no good”, since “this is a significant issue with great implications for the safety and security of our people”. Ultimately, Danger Room decided to run the story on the grounds that this issue is already “well known to foreign spy agencies and terrorist groups”.

2 Responses to Analysis: Biometric passports, iris scanners, worry undercover spooks

  1. Carl Clark says:

    Any good spy will get round border security however good.

  2. Chops says:

    @Carl Clark: This is the “No true Scotsman” fallacy and I present the usual arguments.

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