UK moves towards controversial 'biometric' passports

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In a move which is surely to cause controversy Home Secretary David Blunkett has published a draft Bill on a national ID card scheme.

The cards would help to tackle the types of crime which depend on false identities, like terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering, fraud and illegal working and immigration. They would also enable people to access public services more easily - and prevent access to those without entitlement - and give people a way of proving their identity in everyday transactions and travel.

The Home Secretary also announced today that the first pilot scheme for 'biometric' passports - which use facial recognition, iris images or fingerprints - is now recruiting volunteers. The government aims to involve 10,000 volunteers across the country in the trials.

The ID cards scheme will build on this work to introduce biometrics to passports and other documents. The cards would be compulsory - although people would not have to carry them at all times - and would be introduced gradually.

"We are taking action now to prepare the UK for the challenges of the 21st century - the challenges of crime, security, the speed and nature of communication and international travel, and the number of sophisticated and complex transactions that we as individuals need to do effectively and securely," said Mr Blunkett.

The Bill published today sets out the proposed legal framework needed to introduce the scheme. This includes:

  • Setting up the national identity register - the key database of personal information the cards would link to;
  • Establishing important safeguards on privacy which would limit the way information could be used;
  • Introducing new criminal offences for possession of false ID documents; and
  • Setting a date for when everyone must be issued with a card.

Details of the cards have not been finalised, but they are likely to cover each person's name, age, and right to work and include a unique number. A chip will contain a personal biometric identifier and the cards will be linked to a secure national database.

Biometrics is the science and technology of authentication (i.e. establishing the identity of an individual) by measuring the person's physiological or behavioral features. The term is derived from the Greek words "bios" for life and "metron" for degree.

In information technology (IT), biometrics usually refers to technologies for measuring and analyzing human physiological characteristics such as fingerprints, eye retinas and irises, voice patterns, facial patterns, and hand measurements, especially for authentication purposes.

Examples of behavioural characteristics which can be measured include signature recognition, gait recognition, speaker recognition and typing recognition.

In a typical IT biometric system, a person registers with the system when one or more if his physiological characteristics are obtained, processed by a numerical algorithm, and entered into a database. Ideally, when he logs in, all of his features match 100%; then when someone else tries to log in, she does not fully match, so the system will not allow her to login. However; current technologies are nowhere close to matching this ideal.

Performance of a biometric measure is usually referred to in terms of the false match or accept rate (FMR/FER), the false nonmatch or reject rate (FRR), and the failure to enroll rate (FTER).

In real-world biometric systems the FER and FRR can typically be traded off against each other by means of changing some parameter. One of the most useful measures of real-world biometric systems is the rate at which both accept and reject errors are equal: the equal error rate (ERR)


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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