The government is planning to recruit 10,000 volunteers to have fingerprint and iris scans to test whether biometric technology will be an economical option for ID cards.
The success of the government's plans to introduce electronic ID cards will hinge on the ability of the Passport Service to cheaply and quickly record millions of fingerprint, iris and facial images.
The practicality of the biometric technology behind the cards will be tested in a six-month trial starting this month which will involve 10,000 volunteers, four testing stations and a mobile biometric reader.
The trial is one of 12 wide-ranging projects by the Passport Service that will pave the way for the introduction of electronic identity cards from 2008.
The trial involves data matching programmes which will allow officials to check the personal details of passport applicants with records held by other government departments and private credit reference agencies, and to compare photographic images of applicants with "watch-lists" of known criminals.
The Passport Service has awarded Schlumberger Sema the contract to test the biometric technology. The project will assess whether taking biometric readings of passport applicants can be taken quickly and cheaply.
The Home Office last year disclosed plans to raise the cost of passports to £77 and driving licences to £73 to cover the cost of the technology. It emerged last week it is also considering plans to reduce the validity of cards from 10 to five years - pushing up costs for the public further.
"This excise will show whether we can record biometrics in reasonable numbers. We have to learn from this to inform the design of the next generation of passports and identity cards," said Bernard Herdan, chief executive of the Passport Service.
Ten thousand volunteers will have their pictures taken by a digital camera which doubles as an iris scanner, and will have their fingerprints electronically scanned in a specially designed biometric booth.
Some 2,000 of the volunteers will be selected to provided a representative sample of the UK population, 1,000 will be taken from groups representing people with disabilities and 7,000 will be selected randomly from people near the four test sites.
The booths will be at Newcastle town hall, a DVLA site, a post office and a passport office. The passport office will also test a mobile scanner to record the biometric signatures of elderly or disable people who may not be able to visit a testing centre.
"At present, issuing passports or driving licences does not require the physical presence of the applicant, but clearly iris pattern and fingerprint biometrics will demand this," said Geoff Llewllyn, director of strategy and government relations at Schlum-berger Sema. "This means that any full-scale process to issue biometric cards will have to be designed to enable large numbers of individuals to flow smoothly through an enrolment process."
The trial will compare three different biometric technologies and will assess whether they produce an acceptable number of false matches - given that even a small percentage of false readings in a population of more than 50 million could cause problems.
Schlumberger plans to compare the biometric data against 100,000 iris scans and half a million fingerprint records obtained from the US to assess the likelihood of false matches.
The security and accuracy of biometric technology could have a dramatic impact on the feasibility and cost of the scheme, said Llewllyn.
The Passport Office said it was anxious not to become locked into one supplier, a factor that would require the development of international biometric standards.
Herdan said that standards for encryption and the digital photographs had already been agreed. He said he was confident that a European standard for recording biometric information would follow.
Key projects in the ID card feasibility study
Biometric passport Develop a passport book that stores biometric details of the passport holder. A chip will contain a digitised photograph to improve security. Currently in prototype. Six-month roll-out due in 2005
Electronic identity checks UK Passport Service will verify the identity of passport holders by checking their details against government and commercial databases. A private sector partner will make the ID checking service available to other departments. On trial from October 2003 to October 2004. Ready for full roll-out in 2005 and 2006
Facial recognition checks of passport holders UKPS is running trials to match electronic pictures of passport holders against "watch-lists" containing facial images of terrorists or criminals. Trials are under way now to identify technical solutions. Pilot by the end of 2004
Interviews for first-time applicants of passports UKPS will have the power to require people to attend a personal interview to deter fraud and illegal immigration. It will be used to verify the identity of ID card holders. Feasibility study in 2004. Possible implementation in 2006
Reduce validity of passport from 10 to five years This will reflect the anticipated life of the biometric chip in a passport or an ID card. Will enable chips to be upgraded more rapidly to deter counterfeiters. Could mean higher costs for passport holders. Feasibility study by February 2004. No decision taken
Online checks of births, deaths and marriage certificates UKPS will check applicant's details against birth, deaths and marriage databases at the ONS to check applicants' authenticity. Online from 2006/2007
Biometric passport card Credit card-sized passport with biometric chip to be developed as a prototype ID card. Study to determine technical solutions and business case by mid-2004
Biometric trials 10,000 volunteers will test fingerprint, facial and iris recognition. Due to start in February 2004. Complete by July 2004
Electronic links to police, immigration services to exchange data on lost, stolen and recovered passports UKPS will build electronic links to police, the Foreign Office, and Interpol. Project will underpin plans for ID card. Went live in December 2003. Will roll-out in 2004/2005
To answer the following:
- How long does it take to process biometric information?
- How many false positive or failed registrations will there be?
- Which biometric technology is most acceptable to the public?
- Which technology is most secure?
ID card lessons
US Department of Defence One of the largest biometric smartcard implementations with very high levels of security, but there have been concerns over the number of false matches. Stories abound about male soldiers being recognised as female service staff and vice versa. A lack of global standards is a cause for concern at the Department of Defence.
Moscow Social Card Ingenious ID card designed to administer a complex system of social benefits in Moscow. Russian engineers devised innovative solutions working around gaps in resources and technology. The UK could learn from the scheme.
Home Affairs National ID System, South Africa This system was introduced to combat widespread benefit fraud, but its specification has grown enormously. There are plans for the system to hold driving licences, details of convictions, traffic offences and housing details, but there are difficulties because of the complexity of the system.
Iraq Aims to dramatically reduce administration costs of UN oil for food programme.
Source: Parliamentary IT Committee meeting, January 2004
This was first published in February 2004