Biometric security for London 2012 Olympic Games already in place

Published 14 October 2009

The U.K. government’s security preparations for the 2012 Olympic Games start early: Laborers on the site of the Olympic village are subject to rigorous biometric checks; the metropolitan police hints that as we get closer to the games, local residents may be subject to similar measures

Confusion reigns over at the London Olympic village, as security measures more appropriate to a top security prison than a construction site are put in place to “facilitate” efficient working in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics.

Meanwhile, an official statement by the Olympic Development Authority hints at the need for intrusive security checks on local residents. The on-site measures are reminiscent of those proposed by the U.K. Border Agency to police passengers arriving at U.K. airports, and are being supervised by none other than the U.K. Border Agency itself. These are likely to include the installation of machines capable of hand and iris recognition at entry points around the site.

John Ozimek writes that the first line of electronic defense is likely to be a photographic smart card, used in conjunction with the hand scanners: the iris-checking system will be available as back-up where there is any doubt as to the identity of the would-be construction worker.

As for ID cards, the precise purpose of all this electronic wizardry is not clear, as the reasoning behind it appears to change according to who is asked. The present workforce of 4,500 is expected to double to 9,000 by the end of 2010, and a spokesman for the Olympic Delivery Authority emphasized the Health and Safety nature of the technology.

He said: “Biometric access controls are utilized for health and safety reasons on major UK construction sites and the Olympic Park is the largest and most complex construction site in Europe. The health and safety of the workforce and people living around the park is our number one priority which is underpinned by robust and proportionate security measures we have put in place. A worker’s biometric information is used purely to facilitate efficient access to the site during the construction phase and will not be used for any other purpose.”

Ozimek writes that it is likely that the technology will be used to clamp down on illegal labor, following the revelation that some 136 illegal immigrants were arrested on site between April and December last year: use of personalized ID is also seen as a means to make “ghost working” — the practice of clocking in and working on behalf of someone else — more difficult.

It is in the area of claimed security benefits that the greatest controversy has been stirred. Official spokesmen have identified the Olympic Village as a prime target for a high profile terrorist outrage. Therefore the use of electronic ID measures are seen as playing a crucial role in protecting the site from the threat of terrorism.

The cost of this “belt and braces” approach may rise to £354 million — the amount put aside to pay for the enhanced measures — and some commentators wonder whether this will contribute to further cost overruns in the development of the games.

According to security minister Lord West, the measures are a proportionate response. He said: “We are committed to delivering a safe and secure London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games in keeping with the Olympic spirit, and our planning for this is on track and on budget.”

Ozimek notes that terrorists have a habit of working round security measures and not going for the obvious target. Twenty-five years ago this week, the IRA almost succeeded in assassinating a sitting prime minister through the simple tactic of staying in the suite she would later use — and leaving a bomb behind a panel in the wall.

Given the high profile of the Olympics, it is likely that terrorists would achieve their objectives by almost any major attack on London in the run-up to the games — which means the only effect of the added security at the Village itself will be to displace activity elsewhere.

That, in turn, will require extra security measures in communities surrounding the Olympic Village. In Brighton, recently, in the run-up to the Labor Party Conference, local police put in hand Operation Otter — a series of security measures that included a requirement for some local residents to confirm their identity during a police interview either by showing their passport or a utility bill.

Given the level of security concerns over the Games, it may only be a matter of time before the Metropolitan Police act on the official Olympic Authority concern for “the health and safety of… people living around the park” — and start to institute similar measures in East London.