U.K. national biometric ID faces another hurdle: senior citizens

Published 19 August 2008

Automatic biometric scanners would struggle to read elderly people’s prints because the ridges on the pads of their fingers are often not well defined

There is yet another hurdle the U.K. national biometric ID now has to face: Old people. Implementing the ID card database, which will include details of fingerprints and iris patterns of 50 million citizens, is already set to cost up to £20 billion. Under government plans, ID cards — holding details including names, dates of birth, and addresses — will be held by everyone over 16 from 2017. A collection of industry figures, academics, and Whitehall aides who advise minister on biometric technology have cast doubts on the database’s integrity. The Daily Mail’s Ian Druruy writes that a report by the Biometrics Assurance Group, led by chief scientific adviser Professor John Beddington, said it would be hard to meet the “gold standard.”

This would depend on all ten digits on the hands of everyone in Britain being accurately recorded on the central register. Automatic scanners, however, would struggle to read elderly people’s prints because the ridges on the pads of their fingers are often not well defined. The success of the scheme depends on the prints being of a good enough standard to be scanned repeatedly to prove somebody’s identity.

The group said introducing alternative measures to overcome the problems of pensioners’ poor standard prints would have a “large impact not only on the technical elements of the scheme but on businesses processes, schedules and costs.” It also warned there had not been sufficient testing of ID cards on those with “challenging biometrics” — including the “elderly, mute, non-English speaking, blind or visually impaired.”

Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve said: “This is yet another blow to the Government’s ID card scheme which is seriously unravelling. The Government should now abandon this £20billion scheme which will do nothing to make our security better and may well make it worse. They should instead concentrate on practical things that will make us safer such as answering our calls to establish a dedicated UK border police force.” Phil Booth, the national coordinator of the No2ID campaign group, said: “Suggestions manual checks will suffice every time the computer says ‘no’ begs the question, what is the point of the system in the first place?”

An Identity and Passport Service spokesman disagreed with the report. He said: “We anticipate that situations in which fingerprint image quality is so poor that it is unusable will be extremely rare. Even in the 75-plus age group, print quality is normally perfectly usable. On the very rare occasions when a fingerprint image falls below the quality required for automated matching it is passed to a fingerprint expert who carries out the coding manually so it can be stored on the database.”