The UK Passport Service (UKPS) is launching a six-month trial of biometric technology involving 10,000 volunteers, the first step in country's compulsory ID card plan.
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From January, the UKPS will test facial, iris and fingerprint recording and recognition in an attempt to determine which process is the least invasive for passport holders, said a spokeswoman for the Home Office. The trial will also help determine how the technology works on a broad scale, what the costs will be and how people will accept the technology.
The UK government contends that biometrics in passports and then in ID cards will strengthen identity authentication and reduce identity fraud and related crimes.
Last month, home secretary David Blunkett outlined the Identity Cards Bill that calls for a system of ID cards, to be created by 2010, which will carry biometric identifiers in an embedded chip, and all is linked to a "secure national database".
A chip with the biometric facial identifiers will first be included in passports beginning in 2005, which will, in turn, "build the base" for the ID card plan.
"One of the reasons we are doing this with passports first is because the US government has said it will require biometric passports for people wishing to enter the US," the government spokeswoman said. "At first that was to begin in October 2004, but that has been delayed to an unspecified date in 2005."
The UKPS has already determined that it will use facial recognition biometric chips in passports. The agency is also considering whether it will include a secondary biometric, either the image of the bearer's iris or fingers, in a later version of the passport. The UKPS will subsequently launch a passport card also holding biometric information.
SchlumbergerSema has been contracted to run the biometric trial, which will conclude in June. The Home Office declined to disclose financial details of the agreement, or reveal whether SchlumbergerSema would be in charge of implementing the program after the conclusion of the trial.
The UKPS will carry out the trials at "various locations" throughout the UK, using four fixed, one mobile and one portable unit, with one of the locations being a passport office. The UKPS and SchlumbergerSema are in the process of selecting the sites for the biometrics trial.
Volunteers are being recruited by market research company Mori, which will compile a "representative sample of the UK population". A Mori spokesman was unable to reveal what the guidelines for choosing the trial participants will be and if certain people - those with heart problems, for example - would be excluded, referring any questions about the trials details back to the Home Office.
Once the trial begins, each volunteer will receive a personalised smartcard carrying both printed and electronic information.
The UKPS has a long list of pilot objectives including assessing the practical aspects of incorporating biometrics into a biometric database, determining how well the use of biometrics is in preventing duplicate identities and testing fingerprint and iris biometrics for one-to-many identification and facial recognition for one-to-one verification.
Laura Rohde writes for IDG News Service