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Will industry lead gov by biometric nose?

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A Commons committee has expressed doubts that existing technology can handle the government's national identity card scheme

Members of Parliament's Science and Technology Committee used a hearing on biometric ID cards, taking place on 22 March 2006, to suggest that Home Office officials do not yet have a clear enough grasp of the technical demands to run a successful procurement exercise.

Chair of the committee Phil Willis MP said some of its members had recently visited the US Department of Homeland Security and been told it believed the technology was not yet mature enough to warrant an ID card procurement. The committee established that the Identity Card Programme had set up a "level one" procurement – which outlines what is required from the scheme – but that it is waiting for responses from the IT industry to draw up a level two specification that would outline how the technology should work.

Willis suggested the programme team does not have a clear idea what it wants and would be easily led by the industry.

Nigel Seed, project director for the National Identity Register, replied: "It's not that we don't know what we want, but we're not sure how to implement it."

Bob Spink MP asked why no large scale trial of the technology had yet taken place. Programme director Katherine Courtney said the trials would take place during the procurement phase. Spink asked what will be tested and when, and what is the budget for the process, to which Courtney replied that would all be dependent on royal assent for the legislation.

Willis suggested it was "highly unusual" to begin procurement before trials had been run, especially for a major government project, and that the private sector would effectively control the programme. Courtney claimed it was not unusual.

When questioned about how this would relate to the implementation of the National Identity Register, which is due to go live in 2009, she said the actual date would be dependent on the proposals from the chosen suppliers.

Adam Afriyie MP also questioned the technology's reliability, asking Courtney to outline the known limitations of the scheme. She said the biggest risk is in not training people properly to use the technology, but that she was confident the right training would be provided.

Afriyie pressed the Home Office team, unsuccessfully, on whether there were any projections on how the technology will change in the next seven years. He then commented: "It sounds like we are going to be pioneers, at the leading edge rather than using proven technologies."

Questions arose around the accuracy levels of biometrics – fingerprints, iris scans and facial recognition – for verifying identity. Willis asked Courtenay what accuracy levels she would demand for each of the individual biometrics, but accepted her request that she would provide the answer in writing.

"If during the process you see blips in the system, are you prepared that we will have to elongate the process?" he asked.

Courtney replied that the plan has always been to take an incremental approach.

This article was originally published at Kablenet.

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