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Government admits ID card project won't be fully tested

'Not realistic to rigorously test everything before the scheme goes live', says the government, as it backs off-the-shelf technology and then immediately contradicts itself
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

The government has admitted that it will not rigorously test all aspects of the identity cards scheme before putting it into practice.

The comments were made in the government's official response last Friday to a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology committee, entitled "Identity Card Technologies: Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence".

The committee had recommended that changes to the programme, based on trial results, should be implemented "even if they impact the delivery timetable". However, the government responded that "trial results need to be used in a pragmatic way and should not distract from the need to deliver a workable solution in a timely and cost-effective manner".

"It would not be realistic to rigorously test everything before the scheme ‘goes live' to the point where the government can be sure that no further changes need to be made to the design of the scheme," the government insisted, adding that "some parts of the solution will not be tested but will use ‘off-the-shelf ' technology that has been adequately tested elsewhere".

The government also refused to assure the committee that it would not "limit the number, scope or quality of technology trials in order to stay within the allocated budget", explaining that "trialling has to be managed within the usual budgetary disciplines and so while the government can assure the committee that trials will be well-funded it will also fulfil its obligation to achieve value for money".

"The committee's recommendation suggests that the procurement phase should be extended to include all appropriate trials. The government believes that better, more reliable results and better value for money can be achieved by rolling out the scheme incrementally and collecting data from these early stages with a view to using it to modify the scheme's design as it grows," the government's response also noted.

However, the government demonstrated a different attitude towards the value of "off-the-shelf" technology elsewhere in the same document, when it responded to the committee's enquiries about the UKPS Biometric enrolment trial in 2004.

That trial demonstrated significant shortcomings in iris-recognition biometric technology — a part of the scheme that has now been shelved for the near future. But the government said on Friday that it did not accept the validity of the results, because the technology was not optimised or set up for the requirements of a national identity card system.

The government quoted a Dr Mansfield of the National Physical Laboratory (NPL), who said: "The trial was not devised as a performance trial but it illustrated that if you just buy off-the-shelf systems and deploy them with no adaptation to the ID cards programme the performance would not be terribly good".

The government went on to add that those trials had produced useable results, in that they had showed  "the base level of the performance of the technology... i.e. the level of performance which can be achieved with off-the-shelf equipment without any specific evaluation or configuration".

Questions surrounding identity-checking processes that may be used — and what pieces of identity data might be used by various organisations — also remained unanswered by the government, which said they would be impossible to answer "until the card has entered widespread usage for identity verification".

A recommendation from the Science and Technology committee that a specialist information and communications technology (ICT) assurance group should be established to monitor the project was welcomed, but the government cautioned that it was "difficult to put a firm timescale on the establishment of the group". It did, however, acknowledge that it was "fully aware that, in order to be useful, the group would have to be established early enough to influence technical policy and architectural decisions during procurement".

However, the government did not commit to providing a detailed breakdown of the scheme's costing, explaining: "Whilst we are keen to remain open and transparent on the level of detail provided to the public in the cost estimates for the programme, we must also protect the commercially sensitive information of our suppliers."

Last Thursday the government admitted it had not yet finalised its plan for the scheme's implementation and management, although it claimed that such a plan would materialise "in the coming weeks".

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