UK passport agency begins trial on biometric IDs

The UK Passport Service (UKPS) has launched its six month trial of biometric technology involving 10,000 volunteers, and at the...

The UK Passport Service (UKPS) has launched its six-month trial of biometric technology involving 10,000 volunteers, and at the same time, the UK government introduced its draft bill for biometric identity cards and a central database of all of its citizens.

ID cards will carry biometric identifiers in an embedded chip, which is then linked to a "secure national database" called the National Identity Register.

The database is expected to contain such information as name, address, date of birth, gender, immigration status and a confirmed biometric feature such as electronic fingerprint, a scan of the iris of the eye or of a full face.

The UKPS trial will test for all three biometrics traits: electronic fingerprint, a scan of the iris of the eye and a full face scan. 

"This is the first time that three different biometric technologies from three different suppliers have been integrated into one solution," said a spokeswoman for Atos Origin, the company running the trial for the government.

The technical challenges may also account for why the trial, launched at Globe House, the London Passport Office, is three months behind the original launch date.

Atos Origin will be responsible for the delivery and installation of the equipment and software for the trial, while NEC is supplying its Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

Identix will provide the fingerprint capture and facial matching technology and Iridian Technologies is responsible for the iris recognition technology. The survey research component of the project will be undertaken by London-based market research company MORI.

The UKPS has already determined that it will, initially, 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.

A chip with the biometric facial identifiers will first be included in passports beginning "sometime" in 2005, which will in turn "build the base" for the ID card plan.

The primary purpose of the six-month UKPS biometric trial, also being held in Leicester, Newcastle and Glasgow, is to gauge the public reaction to the technology, the spokesman said.

"The trial will simulate a potential future biometric collection process," said Atos Origin's spokeswoman Caroline Crouch. After the data is collected, the volunteer will be asked to fill out a survey detailing their opinion of the process. Those surveys will be anonymous, she added.

"Biometrics as an identification method is certainly picking up momentum and gaining in popularity as has been seen by the UK Passport Office and the US Department of Homeland Security," said Derek McDermott, the Director of ISL Biometrics.

"Once people begin using biometrics, they will never go back to passwords, because this technology is just too easy and convenient to use."

"Biometrics is not the be all, end all, but it will drastically reduce the risk of identity fraud and other misuses of identity," McDermott said. One potential problem with the ID card programme, McDermott conceded, is the vulnerability of the national database, and the possibility that such a database may become a target of terrorists or other criminals in and of itself.

"The government would have to make sure the data is held securely and would have to build a parameter around that type of environment."

Groups such as the Law Society, the professional body for lawyers in England and Wales, have expressed concerns that the programme is too wide-reaching and that the Home Office has been unable to prove the programme would stop identity fraud.

"The government has failed to show that similar schemes in other counties have helped to reduce identity fraud. Indeed, in the US, the universal use of Social Security Numbers - a scheme similar to the one the UK government is proposing - has led to a huge growth in identity fraud," the Law Society said.

"Despite a compulsory identity card scheme, France continues to battle problems such as illegal working, illegal immigration and identity fraud - the very things the Home Office hopes to address with identity cards. If an identity card has not eliminated these challenges in France, what makes the Home Office believe that these problems can be resolved with an identity card scheme in the UK?"

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