May 6, 2004 6:09 AM PDT

Britain's biometric ID cards postponed

Technical problems have delayed the British government's trials for biometric ID cards by three months.

The failure of fingerprint and iris-recognition equipment caused the delay, Home Secretary David Blunkett told members of Parliament this week.

The trial, involving the registration of 10,000 volunteers to record and test biometric ID data, was originally due to launch in February but did not begin until last week. As a result, the length of the project has been cut from six months to three months.

The U.K. Passport Service is running the project with its technology partner Atos Origin, which inherited the deal through its acquisition of SchlumbergerSema.

But at a Home Affairs select committee this week, Blunkett and the U.K. Passport service acknowledged that the system Atos Origin initially delivered had problems and was sent back to the company after a few weeks.

Problems with the hardware, software and the capture and recognition of data have forced adjustments to the resolution and focus of the facial-recognition camera, along with modifications to the background used for iris scanning.

A representative for the Home Office told that the problems have now been rectified.

"We have to make sure it is correctly configured before launching it. It's essential we get the first installation right before it is rolled out across the country. We'll learn our lessons from this," the representative said. "There were issues of failure in the equipment, but those have been rectified and the technical problems have been ironed out."

Atos Origin representatives were unavailable for comment. NEC, which is providing the fingerprint-recognition technology for the project, said the Home Office will not allow it to comment.

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ID cards NOT postponed
The headline to the piece is a little misleading. The British Home Office has begun its biometric trials late because of technical problems, true. But they have been curtailed as a result. There's no sign that the "ID cards" scheme has been postponed at all, indeed every sign that it is being pushed forward with ever greater urgency.

It may seem odd that a technical trial that's already slipped 50% due to technical problems is set to end on time. It's explicable, however, if you posit that the Home Office doesn't really care about the cards. Though it has been sold to the public as an "ID card" scheme, the more imporatnt part of the scheme, and the technically easier part, is the creation of a compulsory National Population Register in which every person in Briatin will have their residence and employment status logged, and is intended to act as a index to people on other state databases. The cards to be useful to the state don't need to work biometrically, they just have to bear numbering. Even the Home Office can manage numbering.

Mr Blunkett's Matrix (as some are calling it) is to enable the overweening government's desire for "total information awareness" (read: perfect control of citizens) by an alternative approach to Adm Poindexter's. Whereas the basic idea of TIA is a gigantic data-mining operation, Blunkett's Matrix is based round the idea of giving the public Hobson's Choice in logging an unique personal identifire to tag their every civil act, building a relational database of all our lives by stealth. It won't work as advertised, of course. But has much more chance than TIA of working well enough to be a the worst danger to liberty and privacy ever to afflict a formerly free country.
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