Biometric ignorance

Not for the first time, the UK Government has unveiled plans that, at best appear confusing, and at worst appear wholly contradictory, following the publication of the UK Borders Bill on 26 January 2007.

Under the proposals, the Government will introduce compulsory identity cards for non-EU nationals, which will require immigrants to submit a biometric document that includes “features of the iris”.

This would not seem particularly remarkable if it were not for the fact that, for the past six weeks, iris-recognition has been at the centre of a political controversy in Whitehall, prompted by the publication of an official report into Project Iris, the biometrics trial that has been operating at selected British airports since 2005.

According to Ben Wallace, a Tory MP, the report, which was filed in December 2006, shows that Project Iris “failed half its assessments”, thereby casting doubt upon the viability of the National Identity Card scheme in which iris-recognition was “a major plank”, and for which Project Iris was acting as a precursor.

Liberal Democrats went one step further, arguing that the iris-scanning “technology simply isn’t good enough” to sustain the ID Card scheme which, they declared, is consequently “doomed to failure.”

These accusations seemed to receive tacit acknowledgement from the Government when the Home Office revealed in mid-January that it does not plan to include iris-recognition in the initial ID Card scheme. The subsequent endorsement of iris information in the UK Borders Bill, has therefore served to further confuse the Government’s stance on the biometric.

Amid the uncertainty, one thing is now obvious: iris-recognition has become a political crucible for the viability of biometrics as a whole. But it remains unclear if iris-recognition, and its supporting technology is, or ever has been, at fault.

The experts' response…

The media coverage has been quite incorrect about the Government “abandoning” the iris biometric. Rather, the Government is complying with the House of Commons (Science and Technology Committee) recommendation for an incremental approach, rather than a ‘big bang’ roll-out. I think the main problem is that public discussion about the iris biometric in the media and by opposition politicians has been dominated by sheer ignorance.

Will McMeecham, director of the European Biometrics Forum, believes that the reported problems surrounding iris-scanning result from poor management of the technology.

If you look at the trial, it was very badly done and the main failings were not in the technology but in the application of the technology – this is pretty much true of a lot of government IT systems where the technology is hyped to some extent and the decision makers, the civil servants, and the politicians can’t see further than the technology. Then the technology becomes the main focus, and there isn’t nearly enough thought put into the application.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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