U.K.'s biometric trial exposes 'teething problems'

As part of its campaign to relaunch its proposed legislation for a national identity card program using biometric technology, the U.K. government also released late Wednesday its report on the U.K. Passport Service's (UKPS) eight-month trial of biometric technology involving 10,000 volunteers. However, rather than building a solid case for the Identity Cards Bill, the report highlighted what the UKPS called "teething problems" with the technology, including complications with scanning fat fingers, dark-complexioned people and older individuals.

The UKPS stressed that the trial's aim was to measure people's reaction to having their biometrics collected, not the technology's effectiveness at gathering facial, iris and fingerprint biometrics. Nevertheless, the study's results revealed some glitches in the technology.

The U.K. has already committed itself to begin including facial image biometric identifiers in new passports starting in 2006. The government now intends to require a "second generation" biometric passport using fingerprint identifiers beginning in 2008, partly because the facial biometric will not keep people from registering more than once.

While 10,000 volunteers participated in the trial, the detailed research released by the UKPS focused on 2,000 "quota" people picked to match the general population, and 750 disabled people.

Of the three biometrics tested, the lowest verification success rate occurred with the face, with a 69 percent success rate for quota participants and a dismal 48 percent for disabled participants. However, the UKPS attributed that rate to the lighting in the mobile enrollment center, rather than the fact that the people involved in the trial have a disability.

The verification success for fingerprints was higher, at 81 percent for quota participants and 80 percent for disabled participants. The UKPS pointed out that the fingerprint devices used in the study increased the failure rate because they occasionally failed to record sufficient details. The machines also had difficulty scanning the irises of dark-complexioned people and those over the age of 59, for which the report recommended further studies examining the reasons behind those findings.

Fat fingers also appeared to pose occasional problems for the fingerprint scanner, as the device was sometimes "too small to scan a sufficient area of fingerprint from participants with large fingers." Additionally, fingers with scaring reduced the rate of verification success as well, the report said.

Not only did the iris biometric have the highest success rate among the three tests, at 96 percent for quota participants and 91 percent for disabled participants, it also proved to be the preferred biometric for both males and females. However, many of the females tested also preferred fingerprints, the UKPS said.

Atos Origin SA ran the trial and delivered and installed the project's equipment and software. NEC Corp. supplied its Automated Fingerprint Identification System, Identix Inc. handled the fingerprint capture and facial matching technology and Technologies Inc. provided the iris recognition technology. London-based market research company MORI (Market & Opinion Research International) conducted the project's survey research component.

The government has not awarded the biometric passports contract and a Home Office spokeswoman said she knew of no time line for doing so. Atos Origin declined to comment.

The UKPS report did not investigate the reasons behind the findings or give any suggestions for technology fixes for issues encountered. "These may be addressed in further trials," the report said. But according to the Home Office, there are currently no plans for further biometric trials.

Another potential headache for the UKPS could be the amount of time it takes to physically gather the biometric information from individuals. According to the report, it took an average of 7 minutes 56 seconds for the quota group to be enrolled and an average of 8 minutes and 15 seconds for disabled people.

There are currently about 60 million people living in the U.K. with approximately 80 percent of the adult population currently holding a passport. Between 3 million people to 4 million people renew their passports each year, the UKPS said. Passports can currently be renewed through mail, but once biometrics are used, individuals will be required to show up at centers set up to collect biometric information.

The U.K. government has always planned to use the UKPS effort to build the base for the ID card plan and its resulting database. The aim is to issue the ID cards in 2008 in conjunction with passports at an estimated cost of

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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