System spots phony passports pre-boarding

The Transportation Department, with help from the Transportation Security Administration, has quietly tested an automated document authentication platform to screen passengers flying from Nigeria to the United States.

'We wanted to make sure we knew exactly who was entering our country,' said a TSA official who asked not to be named.

DOT installed equipment from Imaging Automation Inc. of Bedford, N.H., at the ticket counter and boarding checkpoint of World Airways Inc. in Lagos in the last half of 2003. That point was chosen because World Airways, of Peachtree City, Ga., had direct flights from Lagos to Atlanta and New York.

'We had to fortify that checkpoint,' the official said. 'We did find it very useful.' The equipment picked up two or three phony passports per flight.

DOT used the iA-thenticate platform, which uses a charge-coupled-device digital camera to capture images of documents under multiple light sources.

Image counts

The platform has optical character recognition, pattern matching and other applications to examine the multiple images and verify embedded security features. The images are compared against Imaging Automation's library of security features present in official documents.

Although such features have long been embedded in documents to thwart forgery, the verification equipment until recently has been located in forensics laboratories. Imaging Automation wants to move the technology to the front lines.

Despite some interest from the Transportation, State and Homeland Security departments and implementations at Boston's Logan and Dallas-Fort Worth International airports, most interest so far has come from overseas.

About 3,000 of the devices have been deployed worldwide, said Rick Carter, Imaging Automation's senior director of homeland security. Two of the largest installations are in Canada and Australia, with about 400 devices each.

Australian customs and immigration agents use the technology at all international airports there to authenticate the documents of each of the 18 million travelers entering and leaving the country each year. Carter said the Australian program gives his company credibility as well as money.

'Australia is seen as a leader in its immigration and customs,' Carter said
Biometric authentication has been added to the platform, and the company is targeting DHS' Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, which is testing a variety of biometric technologies at several U.S. ports.

Authentication technology complements rather than replaces the human workers who examine documents. One unexpected benefit of the Nigerian program was that it made the inspectors more attentive because they did not want to be shown up by machines, the TSA official said.

'Sometimes one person would pick up a ticket' at the counter, 'but someone else approach-
ed the checkpoint,' he said. Although the documents presented were authentic, the operators detected the switch because they were paying closer attention to the people who presented them.

The official said the technology proved its worth. 'It attracted a lot of attention from other carriers' in the Lagos airport, he said. 'It is something we want to initiate' at airports with direct flights into the United States. 'Definitely, we're going to use this type of product again.'

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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