The UK and US governments are to set up a fast-track scheme for trusted, frequent travellers between the two countries, immigration minister Liam Byrne announced today. So say goodbye to immigration blues? Not so fast - the agreement between the two countries only "sets out the shared determination to develop a swift channel across the two borders for trusted travellers", presumably meaning that it'll be a while yet.
The proposed swift channel, says the Home Office, will use fingerprint, iris or facial recognition to speed up border control, and "builds on the success" of the UK's IRIS scheme, which uses iris scans to identify registered trusted travellers at the border. IRIS isn't massively popular (it's been used over a million times since March 2006), but at least some of its 200,000 registered users are enthusiastic about it, and registration is relative simple, albeit involving a measure of agreed privacy invasion.
Implementing a system of this sort that the US would be happy with is however not necessarily trivial, and it's the 'trusted' bit of trusted traveller that the Department of Homeland Security is likely to chew away at. User registration for the proposed system would have to be carried out to the satisfaction of both governments, with both running background checks and watchlist checks of the candidates. And one can probably presume that whatever data on you the UK government looks up will automatically be passed on to the US.
Besides that, the biometric identifier used to verify the user needs to be agreed. The US possibly isn't too particular, as it now takes photos and collects all ten fingerprints on entry, and a trusted traveller scheme might mean it was happy just checking the one, provided it had all of the rest on file and could be sure the owner was still the owner. It might even be happy to have the UK authorities collect the file biometrics for it (the UK authorities certainly would be).
The system will almost certainly have some relationship to the 'clear to fly' Electronic Travel Authorization system the US plans as a successor to the visa waiver programme. Under this, prospective travellers will need to be pre-authorised prior to being allowed to board a plane to the US.
So with the ETA, people wanting to travel to the US will be checked out before they're allowed to, and hence those allowed to can be deemed trusted, right? Whereas with the proposed trusted traveller scheme, people travelling frequently to the US will be checked out first, and those allowed to participate can also be deemed trusted. More trusted? Are the rest of the travellers still potentially dangerous despite having been cleared?
Or might those on the trusted traveller scheme be business travellers vouched for by their companies? As Byrne made the announcement to representatives of large City of London employers, noting as he did the importance to large financial organisations of speedy travel between the UK and the US, one could hazard a guess... ®