GENEVA (ILO News) - The International Labour Organization (ILO) announces an important step forward in ensuring the proper functioning of the biometric element of its new "biometric" identity verification system for seafarers. The tests carried out in this regard could also contribute to advances in achieving biometric interoperability in other areas ( Note 1).
The ILO's Seafarers' Identity Documents Convention, 2003 (No. 185) is the first international binding instrument for an international identification system. Its biometric feature, a fingerprint template stored in a barcode, was chosen because this biometric solution was the one preferred by the seafarers themselves. However, the main challenge in systems of this kind is the achievement of global interoperability: i.e., it must be possible for the fingerprint information on the Seafarer Identity Document (SID) issued in one country to be read correctly by equipment used in any other country.
To enable this the ILO Governing Body adopted (in March 2004) a single standard with the specifications to be followed in national systems and products for generating the biometric representation on the SID and for verifying that the seafarer's fingerprint corresponds to the fingerprint on the SID. In November last year, the ILO announced the result of a 6-week test on seven products that that had just been carried out on board ship with 126 volunteer seafarers ( Note 2).
This test demonstrated that two of the products from very different sources met the ILO's performance objectives even when working together. The main problem with four of the five other products related to the requirement of global interoperability. Thanks to support from the United States based National Biometric Security Project, a follow-on study was carried out to investigate what had caused the problems in interoperability.
The required analysis was carried out by the ILO's expert and suppliers of products tested in 2004 were invited to make any necessary adjustments. This was followed by a second phase of testing on six of those products (including the two that met the ILO requirements), using the data that had been collected during the testing on board ship last year.
The new testing has just been completed. It has shown that the interoperability performance of the previously unsuccessful products has significantly improved, and that one of them can now clearly be considered as effective and as interoperable with each of the two other products that were found last year to meet the ILO's performance objectives.
This achievement not only is welcome news for the ILO and for countries that will be taking part in the system for seafarers' identity documents established by the new Convention, since there is now a choice between three suitable biometric products, from suppliers in three different countries, as well as a good prospect that the information generated by the present tests will enable the products of other suppliers similarly to meet the ILO's performance objectives. But the achievement also has a wider significance with respect to the ongoing work on biometric identification in general.
The testing begun last year has been groundbreaking in the sense that it was the first time a standardized interoperable fingerprint minutiae template has been tested among multiple products from multiple vendors. The results are therefore relevant for other groups around the world which intend to deploy systems based on a biometric template of this kind.
It should be stressed that the biometric element in the ILO's standard for the fingerprint template is based on standards adopted, or being prepared, under the auspices of the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The ILO's work - including the recent testing - has considerably benefited from the support of ISO and the advice of its experts in biometrics.
The new system, mandated under the Seafarers' Identity Documents Convention, 2003 (No. 185) adopted by the Government, Employer and Worker delegates to the International Labour Conference in June 2003, represents a comprehensive response to the need for greater global security while guaranteeing the rights of workers in the global shipping fleet, which handles 90 per cent of world trade.
Convention No. 185 was adopted to replace the Seafarers' Identity Documents Convention No. 108 (1958), which has been ratified by 63 ILO Member States representing more than 61 per cent of the world's fleet.
The new instrument came into force on 9 February 2005 following early ratification by France, Jordan and Nigeria. Several other countries have already started the process to complete ratification, according to information provided to the ILO. Among these are the Philippines, Indonesia and India, countries that provide the largest number of sea-going maritime personnel. The ILO will be organizing on 28 April a donors' conference as well as a demonstration of SID systems by vendors.