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Biometric Identity Card System Mired In Delays

31 January, 2011

Biometric identification for seafarers has been on shipping’s regulatory agenda ever since September 11, 2001, when the US fast-tracked it through the International Labour Organisation with no votes against. But it appears in retrospect that getting agreement in principle was the easy bit.

At the time of writing (27 January 2011), just 18 nations had signed up to Seafarers’ Identity Documents Convention (Revised) 2003, colloquially known as ILO 185 . One further country had declared its intention to do so.

All that such a system is being asked to do is to convert fingerprints into a biometric template which will then be encoded into a bar code on the seafarer’s identity document, known as an SID. Thus all seafarers will be issued with a unique personal identification proof that can be used all over the world.

That should hardly be beyond the reach of human ingenuity. Yet as we approach the 10th anniversary of the Islamist attacks on New York and Washington, workable technology is still not in place, with the substantial cost of putting a system in place regarded as onerous by nations that send few citizens to sea. But more than anything, the biggest hurdle has been agreement over the specifications of the kit.

The slightly more encouraging news is that the ILO’s governing body as its executive is known last November managed to reach consensus on this score, agreeing on standards broadly in line with those set down by the International Civil Aviation Organisation for air crews.

As quid pro quo for requiring seafarers to carry new identity documents, port states are required to facilitate shore leave and transits to and from ships, for example by not requiring seafarers to obtain visas from overseas consulates in advance of their arrival.

The current proposals include voluntary use of a microchip to be included in ID documents, making them interoperable with the so-called e-passports that have become commonplace since 2003.

However, there are still aspects of the agreed standard, known as ISO/IEC 24713-3, to be ironed out, and a further report will go to the governing body in March this year.

Not everybody is satisfied, and there has been debate in the pages of this newspaper as to whether or not the convention can be said to contain “serious flaws”. ILO International Labour Standards Department director Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry has penned a lengthy rejoinder denying the suggestion.

One British source at an organisation that has attended the talks pointed out that Britain has yet to sign up. One of the reasons appears to be legal delays, with the Department for Transport understood to be in receipt of conflicting advice as to how the necessary changes could be implemented.

Inevitably, in the current constrained climate in public spending terms, there is also the issue of cost. Essentially, there is no way that the measures will pay for themselves.

A spokesman for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said: “We are working constructively with the UK Border Agency to take this forward, but I have no further information.”

Source InterManager

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