The technology problems which delayed the start of a Home Office trial of biometric ID cards and cut short its duration are a worrying sign, MPs and analysts have warned.
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The Passport Office trial, involving 10,000 volunteers across four sites, was due to begin in February but problems with the system, developed by Atos Origin, meant it was delayed until the end of April.
The delays in the trial were caused by problems with the hardware, software and the capture and recognition of data, according to a briefing paper from the Passport Service.
Remedial action was taken for several weeks but the system was withdrawn for re-configuration. Forced changes included adjustments to the resolution and focus of the facial-recognition camera, along with modifications to the background used for iris scanning.
Yet, on Thursday (6 May), MPs testing the iris-recognition technology were told that up to 7% of scans could still fail, due to anomalies such as watery eyes, long eyelashes or hard contact lenses.
Staff at the UKPS were unable to scan the irises of Bob Russell, the Liberal Democrat MP, who has an eye complaint.
Russell said the technology could cause serious problems for people who suffer with bright lights and people with epilepsy. Every machine will need to have a qualified first aider on hand, he warned.
Mark Blowers, senior research analyst at Butler Group, said the government should look beyond biometrics for authentication.
“It worries me that they are putting all their eggs in one basket,” he said. “I would have liked to have seen a trial of all of the different technologies, such as passwords and digital signatures.
"The problems highlight the fact that biometrics is in its early days - you have to question whether it is mature enough to roll out to millions of people."
A Home Office spokesman said, “We went through a very thorough testing process with the equipment, in order to ensure that the equipment is properly 'bedded-in'. The professional approach is to ensure that any trial be correctly configured and proven before we take it into service."
Speaking at a Home Affairs select committee on Tuesday (4 May), home secretary David Blunkett said the whole point of the trial was to learn lessons such as this. "It is important to get it right, rather than to get it quickly," he said.
Atos Origin and NEC, which is providing the fingerprint-recognition technology for the project, both said they had nothing to add to the Home Office statement.