SINGAPORE - Clearing immigration in the literal blink of an eye could become a reality at Singapore's checkpoints.
The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is looking into iris scanning systems, and last week issued a Request for Information (RFI) asking interested vendors to submit proposals by Oct 10. This could lead to a small-scale trial.
Contactless iris capturing and authentication has been picked as "a potentially viable technology to complement our existing biometrics system... for use at our checkpoints", a spokesman for the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority (ICA) told The Straits Times.
Iris scanning typically involves the pre-registration of a person's unique iris pattern, which would then be linked to the individual's passport information.
As the person passes through a security checkpoint, the eyes are scanned to verify identity - similar to the way fingerprint scanning is being used at Changi Airport.
Iris scanning is supposed to be faster than current methods being used here, including regular passport checks and thumbprint scanners.
ICA could not provide details on where and how any iris scanning system could be implemented. The spokesman explained: "This RFI allows MHA and ICA to assess the existing state of iris scan technology and its viability for use at our checkpoints.
"As this is still at the exploratory stage, it is premature for us to provide the operational details at this juncture."
Any trial, however, will be conducted at an "enrolment centre for issuance of identification documents and at a high traffic location such as border checkpoints", according to the RFI.
Currently, no Asian country is believed to employ iris scanning at its borders, and Singapore could well be the first to do so.
Other countries such as Britain have experimented with the technology at certain airports, mostly as a means to tighten border security and expedite the process of clearing immigration. But this has not always been successful.
Britain introduced its Iris Recognition Immigration System (Iris) in 2004, but phased it out in 2012 after complaints that the new system took longer than traditional passport control.
There were also issues with the way iris patterns were registered for reference.
"There's always some shortcoming when it comes to new technology. And with iris scanning, the logistics of repeated registration of iris patterns could also be a stumbling block," said Mr Marcus Tan, managing director of EurekaPlus, which has been providing biometric systems in Singapore for 11 years.
Overseas studies suggest that eye disease can change the iris, while anomalies such as watery eyes, long eyelashes or hard contact lenses can impact scans.
Cataracts could also affect iris readings, noted PCS Security's assistant vice-president of security, Mr Ken Lim, whose firm provides biometric solutions, including fingerprint and facial recognition scanners, to government agencies.
But iris scanning has its uses. Around 3 per cent of people are born with hard-to-read fingerprints - the grooves may be too shallow or the lines too fine. Iris scanning could be a useful option for this group, said Mr Lim.
The technology is also getting better.
Manufacturer 3M, which began offering iris recognition devices globally in 2010, has an iris scanner that can "simultaneously capture both irises in less than two seconds", said its Singapore senior traffic safety and security division manager, Mr Freddie Yong.
An added advantage is the "high accuracy and low mis-identification rate", he added, as "every iris is unique".
This article was first published on September 26, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.