Eating crisps could be enough to have a fingerprint reading rejected by the UK's proposed national identity card scheme. This was one of several concerns about the planned use of biometrics that emerged from a recent BCS debate.
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Crisps make fingers slightly oily, which will affect a reading, said a biometrics expert at the BCS Thought Leadership Debate. The event, which brought together specialists in the field and senior people from industry, the public sector and universities, was held under a rule of anonymity, allowing frank exchanges of views.
Other issues would also affect biometric readers, participants said. Would a fingerprint reader work reliably if it was positioned in direct sunlight? Would it recognise a surgeon with faded fingerprints from years of hand washing, or a bricklayer constantly handling rough bricks, or someone facially disfigured after a fire, or unable to manage an accurate iris scan after becoming blind?
On another tack, if an immigration supervisor at an airport had 15 desks open and one queue was moving faster than the others, how could the supervisor tell whether this was due to a fault with the reader? How could the performance of all the readers be guaranteed technologically?
Biometrics technology has never been used on such a scale as that proposed for the UK scheme, although biometrics are the future for travel documents, and international schedules are in place for their introduction.
This means any national identity card system will need to take account of international use of an individual's biometric identity. Secure data stores and the choice of card readers in one country are not enough when regular international travel is commonplace, the debate heard.
Countries are likely to award their equipment contracts to the lowest bidders, so it would make sense for them to bid collectively. If countries were to bid together, the huge card reader volumes would get sufficient discounts on higher quality devices, but every country would have its own card and its own choice of reader, so the volumes would be smaller, the debate said.
This also highlights the issue of compatibility across the world. What is the chance that when you go abroad you will meet a similar system infrastructure, and similar biometric readers, configured to similar accept-reject settings as the UK? the debate asked.
As the UK upgrades and downgrades its threat level in the light of changing intelligence, will the e-borders infrastructure need to be adjusted, and will that be possible?
Looking at the overall system, will technology be robust enough to support identity schemes such as that proposed by the UK government? No scheme on this scale has been undertaken anywhere in the world and the technology envisioned is to a large extent untested and unreliable on such a scale.
Smaller and less ambitious systems have hit technological and operational problems that are likely to be amplified in a large-scale national system, participants in the debate warned.
Full debate report