A Close Encounter with Biometrics

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Published on: June 14, 2004

It is with a mixture of techie glee and Orwellian paranoia that I present myself at the UK Passport Service offices to participate in the Biometrics Enrolment trial – part of preparations for the governments controversial National ID Cards scheme. I enrolled to find out more about the scheme as there has been little public debate about what will amount to the greatest intrusion of government into our lives since conscription ended in 1960.

Arriving at the UKPS office a queue snakes through the foyer leading to airport style metal detectors and x-ray machines. The people around me are mostly there to apply for passports – most look nervous. This is a watered down version of my experience at the Immigration and Nationality Directorate offices in Croyden, sorting out my wife’s visa – queuing, security, suspicion, fear of rejection.

Once inside I am queuing again. The lady from MORI has brought in someone from the street to make up numbers – the trial is several thousand people short and needs to make up numbers to be considered valid. The man doesn’t have all day – I offer him my place in the queue and he accepts. This gives me time to read the background material explaining the trial’s purpose -it discloses that all biometrics will be destroyed at the end of the trial. I had been warned by colleagues not to participate without confirmation of this.

After filling out the demographics section of the questionnaire comes the meat of the trial – being registered, counted, measured, numbered. This is done in a booth containing the hardware required for the biometricisation process. The operator checks my details and I am alarmed to see her enter the code from my questionnaire along with my name – I thought that was anonymous I say. It’s only for the card she says. I let it go.

First up is facial recognition. I look into the Panasonic BM-ET300, and a camera noise is played. Is this picture ok? the operator asks – it looks a little distorted, reminding me of web cam shots of red eyed computer programmers sitting at their machines long into the night. Yeah, fine.

Iris scanning comes next – I am to line up my eyes so they are central in the mirror on the BM-ET300. The machine bleats out instructions in a robotic female voice reminiscent of the computer in Alien – move back slightly, left, right slightly, forward slightly. I am a bit confused about what to do, but the operators defer to the machine – Just follow the machine’s instructions. Eventually I figure out that the circle in the centre of the mirror is a target – one eye should be centred on that. The snapshot sound plays, and I have been retina scanned. I am sure that only my left eye has been taken though, but the machine thinks otherwise, and we don’t argue with the machine. We sit and drum our fingers as communication is attempted between the UKPS and Atos Origin’s server in Andover. Thrice it fails, and the operator decides to skip the retina scan. I won’t be able to find out if my retina matches one of the others on the database, and I won’t have a complete biometrics card.

Fingerprints involve placing my fingerprints on a glass screen on an Identix TouchPrint 3100 – the computer screen shows a large image of my fingerprints. Each print is checked for quality, and then successfully checked against a dummy database in Andover. This time there is no network problem, and I have passed the test – there is no one else running around with my fingerprints as far as they know.

Finally they ask me to sign my name on LCD screen, which will also be stored on the card.

I am lead back into the queuing room and fill out the rest of the questionnaire – am I more or less concerned about biometrics now I have gone through the process? Do I think that ID cards will protect us from terrorism, illegal working, identity fraud?

Moments later my ID card is ready. The woman who is taking the questionnaire asks me which verification I would like to try – iris, facial recognition or fingerprints – I opt for facial recognition, knowing it is the least reliable of the biometrics. I sit down in front of another Panasonic device, a photo is taken, and my card is plugged into a reader. The operator turns her screen around to show me the picture from my card, with the reassuring word “Verified” in green underneath.

I am a valid human being, at least for the period of the trial.

Originally published in Out-law.com

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