U.K. Tests Biometric Passports
The U.K. Passport Service has launched a six-month trial of biometric technology involving 10,000 volunteers, the same day the government introduced its draft bill for potentially compulsory biometric identity cards and a central database of all of its citizens.
ID cards will carry biometric identifiers in an embedded chip. The chip is linked to the National Identity Register, described as a "secure national database" by David Blunkett, U.K. Secretary of State for the Home Department, who proposed the idea last November.
The draft bill introduced Monday will be followed by a period of consultation, when the public and politicians can comment on the proposal. The final bill is expected in Parliament late this year, and could become law before the next general election, which will likely take place in the second quarter of 2005, Blunkett says.
The database would be created by 2010, and by 2013 ministers would decide whether to make the ID cards universal through the use of biometric passports or driver's licenses. Although citizens would have to pay for the ID cards, they probably would not have to carry it at all times, Blunkett says.
Blunkett has repeatedly hailed biometric ID cards as a powerful weapon in the government's fight against identity fraud, illegal workers, illegal immigration, and terrorism. He says it would also combat illegal use of the National Health System and other government entitlement programs.
The draft bill does not estimate the cost of the program, but past official estimates put it at least at $2.3 billion.
The database is expected to contain such information as name, address, date of birth, gender, and immigration status, plus a confirmed biometric feature such as an electronic fingerprint or a scan of the iris or full face, according to a Home Office spokesperson.
The Passport Service trial will test all three biometrics traits, says a representative of Atos Origin, the company running the trial.
"This is the first time that three different biometric technologies from three different suppliers have been integrated into one solution," says Caroline Crouch, Atos Origin spokesperson. The technical challenges may also explain why the trial is three months behind the original launch date.
Atos Origin (formerly SchlumbergerSema, a subsidiary of Schlumberger) is delivering and installing 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 is responsible for the iris-recognition technology. Market & Opinion Research International (MORI) are handling the survey.
A facial-recognition biometric chip is the first component planned for the British passport. The agency may also use a secondary biometric, such as an iris image or fingerprint, in later versions, the Home Office spokesperson says. Passports with biometric chips will first be issued "sometime" in 2005, which will in turn "build the base" for the ID card plan, the spokesperson adds.
The primary purpose of the six-month trial is to gauge public reaction to the technology, the spokesperson says.
"The trial will simulate a potential future biometric collection process," Crouch notes. After the data is collected, the volunteer will be asked to fill out an anonymous survey about the process.
The participants' biometrics will be compared against a database of anonymous iris and fingerprint images collected outside the U.K., as well as against biometrics collected during the trial, Crouch says. If no match is found, the applicant's biometrics are added and the applicant is "enrolled" in the system. All data gathered during the trial will be destroyed afterwards, Crouch says.
"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," says 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."
ISL Biometrics is not working on the ID card program, but it supplies its E-SentriNet software for use in the NHS Open Exeter system, which gives patients online access to their medical records. It is also running a pilot program for the Home Office's new Security Industry Authority, which is evaluating biometric authentication technology for access to 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 says. However, the national database of ID card information could itself become a target of terrorists or other criminals, he notes.
"The government would have to make sure the data is held securely and would have to build a perimeter around that type of environment," McDermott says.
Unlike the government's biometric passport test, the technology ISL Biometrics uses doesn't store biometric images of a person's fingerprint, iris, or face. Instead, it records about 60 points of interest in the scan and creates a digital template.
Apart from the technology concerns, the program is drawing concern from groups such as the Law Society, the professional body for lawyers in England and Wales. Members suggest it is too wide-reaching, and that the Home Office hasn't proved it would stop identity fraud.
"The Government has failed to show that similar schemes in other countries 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 writes 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 asks.