Home Office advisor urges biometrics testing

ID card campaigners are 'terrified' by the lack of biometrics testing conducted by the Government
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

A senior Home Office advisor has warned that biometrics has a massive usability hurdle to overcome before systems can be rolled out.

The biometrics industry is currently being driven by government projects such as the identity cards scheme in the UK — which became law through the Identity Cards Act 2006 — and the US-VISIT border control system in the US.

However, Marek Rejman-Greene, a senior biometrics advisor for the Home Office's scientific development branch, has said that far more research into usability is needed before any massive rollout. One such rollout is the UK ID cards scheme, which will roll out from 2008.

"I'm surprised how little we know about how people interact with this technology," said Rejman-Greene, appearing on a panel discussion at the Biometrics 2006 show in London.

"We don't have any idea of the right things to do. We need more research about how people confront this technology, especially if the process goes wrong."

Rejman-Greene said little research had been done into how well equipment would bear up under constant use, and little emphasis had been given to how comfortable the technology is for people to use.

"Even though we have successful sensors, there's a question about how robust they are," said Rejman-Greene. "Biometrics needs to be more comfortable."

Rejman-Greene also criticised the US-VISIT capture process in some airports, saying that it is not intuitive, and relies on too much human intervention to make it work.

"You have to present your left finger first, but the capture device is on the right — people automatically reach for the right first. When that's done, people turn away, thinking the job is done. The assistant then has to remind people that a photo needs to be taken," said Rejman-Greene.

Biometrics technology is a vital component of the UK Government's scheme to introduce identity cards.

Rejman-Greene insisted he was not talking specifically about ID cards, but about the biometrics industry in general. However, campaigners against the introduction of UK ID cards still found his comments cause for concern.

"You'd have thought the Government would have spotted that [more research is needed] by now," said Guy Herbert, general secretary of NO2ID. "If it weren't so terrifying it would be extremely funny," Herbert told ZDNet UK.

The Home Office conducted a six-month biometrics enrolment study from April to December 2004. However, the study concentrated on customer experience and attitude during biometrics capture rather than ergonomics and usability, according to a Home Office spokesperson.

Herbert said: "It makes me laugh. The Government are doing it back to front again. Any normal organisation would have found out about the technology, decided what they were going to do, then have a law passed."

Speaking earlier on the panel, Rejman-Greene pointed out that: "In the rush to deployment [if it goes wrong], the accusing finger will be pointed at us [the biometrics industry]."

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