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US, Belgian biometric passports give lie to UK ID scheme

There goes the tech leadership...

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Belgium is to begin issuing biometric passports before the end of the year, while in the US (which could be said to have started all this), the State Department is to begin a trial run this autumn, with full production hoped for next year. Belgium has been reported elsewhere as being the first EU country to roll with biometric passports, but as a Register reader kindly sent us scans of his nice new biometric Netherlands passport recently, we suspect this is not the case.

The apparent ease with which these countries appear to be switching passport standards does raise just the odd question about the UK's very own ID card scheme, which proposes to ship its first biometric passports not soon, but in three years. Regular readers will recall that Home Secretary David Blunkett justifies the ID card scheme on the basis that most of the cost is money we'd have to spend anyway, because we need to upgrade our passports to meet US and ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) standards, and that by making this investment the UK will be putting itself ahead of the game, technology-wise, and that we shall all therefore be technology leaders and rich (we paraphrase a tad here, we admit).

So how come other countries are starting to get in first, and should we worry about losing our lead? We accept that Belgium and the US haven't actually started shipping their passports yet, so it's not all cut and dried, but the UK hasn't started yet either, so ditto. They can ship earlier simply because when David Blunkett tells us that what he is proposing is necessitated almost entirely by the new passport regime, he is simply (as we've pointed out before) not telling the truth. ICAO's requirements are for a biometric machine-readable passport, with the face as the primary biometric, and ICAO is entirely silent on the subject of vast interlocking National Identity Register databases - if you want to implement one of these, that's up to you, it's not compulsory. Similarly, the US wants visitors' passports to be ICAO standard, which is only reasonable, given that the ICAO standard seems to have been devised more or less in accordance with State Department wishes. Once you've done that the US will happily (we fear, very happily) collect personal information on the bearers all by itself - you don't have to do anything, and you never know, they might even share some of it with you.

The biometric passport system the US intends to use simply seems to be an addition of the necessary machine readable capabilities to the existing system. Passport applications, including photograph, will still be accepted via mail, and the picture will then be encoded, added to the database and put onto the chip that goes in the passport. As you may note, a picture is in these terms a biometric, while a camera is a biometric reader, which they are. But don't noise it around, or you'll screw the revenues of an awful lot of snake-oil salesmen.

Back in the UK, we are of course rather more rigorous in our interpretation of the matter, and the system and its schedule will be priced accordingly. But should we worry about losing our lead? No, not exactly. We should worry about spending a great deal of money on a system which will largely police ourselves, and which - in the event of it actually working - will probably turn out to be a huge white elephant. ®

Related stories:

Mistaken ID public meeting, London, 19th May
Blunkett risks ID card battle with EU
Everything you never wanted to know about the UK ID card

Beginner's guide to SSL certificates

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