U.K. will test biometric passports in six-month trial

The U.K. Passport Service (UKPS) in January will launch a six month trial of biometric technology involving 10,000 volunteers, which the U.K. government is billing as the first step in its compulsory ID card plan.

The UKPS will test facial, iris and fingerprint recording and recognition in an attempt to determine which process is the least invasive for passport holders, a spokeswoman for the Home Office said Thursday. The trial will also help determine how the technology works on a broad scale, what the costs will be and how people will accept the technology, she said.

The U.K. government contends that biometrics in passports and then in ID cards will strengthen identity authentication and reduce identity fraud and related crimes. Last month, Secretary of State for the Home Department David Blunkett outlined the Identity Cards Bill that calls for a system of ID cards, to be created by 2010, that will carry biometric identifiers in an embedded chip, and all linked to a “secure national database.”

As part of that program, a chip with the biometric facial identifiers will first be included in passports beginning in 2005, which will in turn “build the base” for the ID card plan. “One of the reasons we are doing this with passports first is because the U.S. government has said it will require biometric passports for people wishing to enter the United States,” the government spokeswoman said. “At first that was to begin in October 2004, but that has be delayed to an unspecified date in 2005.”

The UKPS has already determined that it will initially use a facial recognition biometric chip in the British passport. The agency is also considering whether it will include a secondary biometric, either the image of the bearer’s iris or fingers, in a later version of the passport. The UKPS will subsequently launch a passport card also holding biometric information, the Home Office said.

SchlumbergerSema, a subsidiary of Schlumberger Ltd., has been contracted to run the biometric trial that will conclude in June. The Home Office declined to disclose financial details of the agreement, signed Nov. 27, or reveal whether SchlumbergerSema would be in charge of implementing the program after the conclusion of the trial.

Representatives from SchlumbergerSema could not immediately be reached for comment. The New York company is also currently creating a security system and database based on bar-code badge readers for the 200,000 people participating in next summer’s Olympic Games in Athens.

The UKPS will carry out the trials at “various locations” throughout the U.K., using four fixed, one mobile and one portable unit, with one of the locations being a passport office. The UKPS and SchlumbergerSema are in the process of selecting the sites for the biometrics trial, the Home Office said.

Volunteers are currently being recruited by the London-based market research company Market & Opinion Research International (MORI ). The company will compile a “representative sample of the U.K. population” and at this early stage of the process, is taking enquires from anyone who is interested in participating, a spokesman for MORI said. He added that he was unable to say what the guidelines for choosing the trial participants will be and if certain people – those with heart problems, for example – would be excluded, referring any questions about the trails details back to the Home Office.

Once the trial begins, each volunteer will receive a personalized smart card carrying both printed and electronic information.

The UKPS has a long list of pilot objectives including assessing the practical aspects of incorporating biometrics into a biometric database, determining how well the use of biometrics is in preventing duplicate identities and testing fingerprint and iris biometrics for one-to-many identification and facial recognition for one-to-one verification.

In one-to-many identifications, the iris pattern or fingerprint is compared against a database to verify a person’s identity. The database can hold other information, such as if the person being identified had previously filed a passport application under another identity. The one-to-one verification checks a person’s identity against a document to ensure that the holder is the person it was issued to, for example, comparing the facial image on the ID card against the person or against the database, the Home Office said.

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