• United States

U.K. passport agency begins trial on biometric IDs

Apr 26, 20047 mins

The U.K. Passport Service Monday launched its six month trial of biometric technology involving 10,000 volunteers, the same day that the U.K. government introduced its draft bill for potentially compulsory biometric identity cards and a central database of all of its citizens.

As proposed by U.K. Secretary of State for the Home Department David Blunkett last November, 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 draft bill introduced Monday will be followed by a period of consultation, where the public and politicians can voice their concerns or support of the proposal. The finalized bill will be introduced to Parliament sometime in the last three months of the year and will most likely become law before the next general election, which is expected to take place in the second quarter of 2005, Blunkett said.

The database would be created by 2010, and by 2013 ministers would decide if the ID cards would become compulsory for everyone through the use of biometric passports or driving licences. Though citizens would have to own and pay for the ID card, they most likely would not be forced to carry it with them at all times, Blunkett said.

Blunkett has repeatedly hailed the biometric ID cards as a powerful weapon in the government’s fight against identity fraud, illegal workers, illegal immigration, terrorism as well as combating the illegal use of the National Health System (NHS) as well as other government entitlement programs.

The draft bill did not include any estimates for the costs of implementing the biometric ID card program, but past official estimates have put it anywhere between £1.3 billion ($2.3 billion) and £3.1 billion.

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, according to a Home Office spokesman.

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, according to a spokeswoman for Atos Origin SA, the company running the trial for the government.

“This is the first time that three different biometric technologies from three different suppliers have been integrated into one solution,” according to Atos Origin spokeswoman, Caroline Crouch. The technical challenges may also account for why the trial, launched at Globe House, the London Passport Office, is three months behind the originally announced launch date.

Atos Origin (formerly SchlumbergerSema, a subsidiary of Schlumberger Ltd.) is responsible for the delivery and installation of the equipment and software for the trial, while NEC is supplying its Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Identix is providing 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 (Market & Opinion Research International).

The UKPS has already determined that it will initially use a facial recognition biometric chip in the British passport. 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 Home Office spokesman said Monday. 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 spokesman said.

The primary purpose of the six month UKPS biometric trial, also being held in Leicester Post Office, Newcastle Registrars Office and the DVLA Local Office in Glasgow, is to gage the public reaction to the technology, the spokesman said.

“The trial will simulate a potential future biometric collection process,” Atos Origin’s Crouch said. 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.

According to Crouch, the participants’ biometrics will be compared against a database of anonymous iris and fingerprint images collected outside the U.K. as well as the biometrics collected during the trial. If no match is found, the applicant’s biometrics are added and the applicant becomes “enrolled” in the system. After the end of the trial, all of the data will be destroyed, Crouch said.

“Biometrics as an identification method is certainly picking up momentum and gaining in popularity as has been seen by the U.K. Passport Office and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security,” said Derek McDermott, the Director of ISL Biometrics Ltd. “Once people begin using biometrics, they will never go back to passwords, because this technology is just too easy and convenient to use.”

ISL Biometrics is not currently working with the government on the ID card program, but does supply its e-SentriNet software for integration into the NHS Open Exeter system, which allows patients online access to their medical records and is also running a pilot program for the Home Office’s newly formed Security Industry Authority (SIA) to provide biometric authentication technology that enables office and remote workers to gain access to their laptops and PCs.

“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 program, 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.”

One of the major differences between the system being tried by the UKPS and the technology used by ISL Biometrics is that the biometric images of a person’s fingerprint, iris or face would be stored on the database used by the UKPS, whereas the ISL Biometrics doesn’t store such a scan: instead it records about 60 points of interest in the scan and creates a digital template.

Apart from the technology issues of the UKPS biometric ID trail, groups such as the Law Society, the professional body for lawyers in England and Wales, have expressed concerns that the program is too wide-reaching and that the Home Office has been unable to prove the program 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 U.S., the universal use of Social Security Numbers – a scheme not unlike the one the U.K. Government is proposing – has led to a huge growth in identity fraud,” the Law Society wrote in its official response to the program.

“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 U.K.?” the Law Society said.