Technical problems hold up identity cards trial

6 May 2004 Hitches with biometric reading equipment delayed the start of the UK Passport Service’s identity cards trial and cut its duration by half, home secretary David Blunkett has told MPs.


The trial of 10,000 volunteers was supposed to have started on 2 February but did not begin until 26 April. In order to get the project finished on time, its length was reduced from six to three months.

The test system, supplied by IT services supplier Atos Origin, encountered “hardware, software and ergonomic problems leading to inconsistent enrolment”, according to one document submitted to the Home Affairs select committee. All three varieties of biometric identifiers — fingerprint, iris recognition and facial recognition — ran into trouble as users tried to register their details for the ID cards.

Iris scanning has posed the greatest technical difficulties. The system is said to have a 7% failure rate, with long eyelashes and watery eyes causing inaccurate readings. On of the committee members who tried out the system, Bob Russell, said he found it uncomfortable and difficult to use.

“I think this is going to cause serious problems for people who suffer with bright lights and people with epilepsy,” Russell said. “I think it will be necessary at every machine to have at least one member of staff who is a qualified first aider to a high level. I can see people keeling over with epileptic fits.”

Problems also arose with the resolution and focus of the facial-recognition camera. The fingerprint reading system, which captures images of all digits simultaneously, was found to require a secondary stage of individual re-entry for fingers that were not read properly. People with “faint” fingerprints, such as manual labourers, may struggle with the system, admitted project director Roland Sables.

Registration conditions must be strictly controlled to obtain accurate readings. The Home Office plans to introduce ‘enrolment pods’ to post offices for the public to register themselves when the system is rolled out. Currently, the only pod is at the Passport Service’s London headquarters, with more to be opened within weeks in Leicester, Newcastle upon Tyne, Belfast and Glasgow.

The Government hopes biometric ID cards will help prevent terrorism, control illegal immigration and prevent crimes such as identity fraud. However, it is not clear how ID cards will contribute to these aims.

Nevertheless, the Home Secretary David Blunkett has an unshakable faith in biometrics, warning that terrorists pick the weakest targets and “the further we are behind up-to-date technology, the weaker we become”.

In spite of the difficulties, Blunkett said he expected “a flood of people” to be “queuing up” for the new ID cards. The system is now said to be working properly and the final report on the trial will be published in September. The first biometric passports are due to be introduced to the whole country in 2007 and ID cards are expected to be compulsory within 10 years.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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