The six-month trial involves 10,000 volunteers
APRIL 26, 2004 (IDG NEWS SERVICE) - The U.K. Passport Service (UKPS) today launched its six-month trial of biometric technology involving 10,000 volunteers, the same day that the U.K. government introduced a draft bill that could mandate 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 in November (see story), the ID cards would carry biometric identifiers in an embedded chip, which would be linked to a secure national database called the National Identity Register.
The draft bill introduced today will be followed by a period of consultation, during which 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 this 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 all U.K. citizens through the use of biometric passports or driver's licenses. Though citizens would have to own and pay for the ID cards, they most likely wouldn't be forced to carry 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 and the illegal use of the National Health System (NHS) as well as other government entitlement programs.
The draft bill didn't include any estimates for the costs of implementing the biometric ID card program, but past official estimates have put it at anywhere between $2.3 billion and $5.5 billion.
The database is expected to contain information such as name, address, date of birth, gender, immigration status and a confirmed biometric feature such as electronic fingerprint, a scan of the eye's iris or of a full face, according to a Home Office spokesman.
The UKPS trial will test for all three biometric traits: electronic fingerprints, iris scans and full-face scans, according to Caroline Crouch, a spokeswoman for Atos Origin SA, the Paris-based 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," Crouch said. 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 Corp. is supplying its Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Identix Inc. is providing the fingerprint-capture and facial-matching technology, and Iridian Technologies Inc. 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 plans initially to use a facial-recognition biometric chip in the British passport. The agency may also 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. 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 biometric trial, also being held in the Leicester post office, the Newcastle registrar's office and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency office in Glasgow, is to gauge public reaction to the technology, said the Home Office.
"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.
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, 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."
U.K.-based ISL Biometrics isn't currently working with the government on the ID card program. But it 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 running a pilot program for the Home Office's newly formed Security Industry Authority. That program is designed to provide biometric authentication technology to enable 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, he acknowledged, is the vulnerability of the national database and the possibility that such a database may itself become a target of terrorists or other criminals.
"The government would have to make sure the data is held securely and would have to build a parameter around that type of environment," McDermott said.
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. ISL Biometrics, by contrast, doesn't store such a scan; it records about 60 points of interest in the scan and creates a digital template.
Apart from technology issues, 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 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 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.
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