TrendTrend: Questions about biometric IDs' effectiveness, accuracy persist

Published 16 October 2005

Many question were raised about the use of biometrics, most related to privacy concerns and the accuracy of the technology. Now there is another concern: Dirty fingers. Eating crisps, for example, may well be sufficient to have a fingerprint reading rejected by the UK proposed national identity card scheme. Crisps make fingers slightly oily, which will affect a reading, said a biometrics expert at a recent meeting of the British Computer Society (BCS). Sticky fingers were not the only concerns about the emerging security technology. Experts raised other questions: Would a fingerprint reader work reliably if it were positioned in direct sunlight? Would it recognize a surgeon with faded fingerprints from years of hand washing, or a bricklayer constantly handling rough bricks, or someone facially disfigured after a fire, or unable to manage an accurate iris scan after becoming blind?

There were other concerns: If an immigration officer at an airport had fifteen desks open and one queue was moving faster than the others, how could the officer tell whether this was due to a fault with the reader? How could the performance of all the readers be guaranteed technologically?

The concerns above were only the beginning. Any national identity card system will be part of a larger, international use of the technology. Secure data stores and the choice of card readers in one country are not enough. Every country would have its own card and its own choice of reader, raising issues of compatibility across the world. How likely it is, say, for a UK citizen who goes abroad to meet a biometric system infrastructure similar to the one in the UK, with similar biometric readers, configured to similar accept-reject settings as the UK?