UK Government identity crisis

by Mark Rowe

The UK Government influences our lives daily through its public services, from the NHS and education to social benefits and national security. However, a re-occurring obstacle that presents a challenge for accessing these services is proving identity, writes David Orme, SVP at IDEX Biometrics, a fingerprint sensor product company.

There are also high instances of healthcare and social benefit fraud where effectively proving identity is an ongoing issue. For these public services public services to be fully optimised, it is paramount to have the correct measures of identification in place to ensure that the correct people receive the services they need. Put simply, without an effective means of identification, the UK Government is massively at risk of being unable to maintain control of how its resources are deployed throughout the country.

Amidst this national proof of identity crisis, it should come as a great relief that we are currently on the cusp of a new era of biometric identification. With biometric authentication technology already being used in smartphones and passport identification in the UK, we can expect to see the world moving towards using biometrics as a means of identification in more areas of our everyday lives. In the face of such advancements, the UK must ensure that it does not fall behind the curve.

The Government highlighted its intentions on June 28 in a much-anticipated proposal outlining how it would adopt an increased use of biometric information in everyday public services, however many have raised concerns that it doesn’t go far enough. The Government must capitalise on biometric developments by incorporating methods such as fingerprint authentication into national identification cards to ensure a far more robust and secure process of identification. This form of identification would be used to access everyday public services, similar to card payment authentication processes, and greatly assist in running them more effectively.

Despite the proposal representing a step in the right direction, for many, it’s lack of strategy was highly concerning, and it suggests that the Government is wholly unprepared for this next step of innovation. To fully embrace biometric technology as a nation, it is clear that more needs to be done to both address the role it will play in public services and to create greater awareness amongst the general population.

With only 14 pages specifically dedicated to explaining the Home Office’s plans for the increased use of biometric information in everyday public services, there were vast criticisms that it did not go far enough to discuss the actual legislation that will be implemented. For example, Big Brother Watch director Silkie Carlo complained that “the Home Office appears to lack either the will or competence to take the issues seriously – for a government that is building some of the biggest biometric databases in the world, this is alarming.”

This was echoed by Paul Wiles, the UK’s biometric commissioner, who was frustrated by the proposals lack of clear strategy, “it is disappointing that the Home Office document is not forward looking as one would expect from a strategy – it does not propose legislation to provide rules for the use and oversight of new biometrics, including facial images.”

With the Government seemingly unable to determine the best way to integrate this technology, it is clear that more needs to be done to consider how best to ensure a smooth transition for public adoption. This will in turn improve the process for when this technology is eventually incorporated into our lives.

So what role should biometric authentication technology play in the future of the UK’s public services? Firstly, with fingerprint recognition, it is no longer simply what you know but instead, who you are that will prove identify. By linking people to a card through their fingerprints, it is a far more secure means of authentication that will limit potential fraud and criminality.

Biometric authentication can be implemented across a wide range of public services including the NHS, national security, as well as in schools and universities. For example, the addition of biometric authentication to national identity cards will ensure the right people receive the right help. National security will no longer just rely on paper passport identification, but also fingerprint methods of biometric authentication to more accurately prove a person’s identity.

Think too of social benefits cards. Using fingerprint methods of authentication linked to national identification, the Government could better ensure welfare is accessed by the right person and that vulnerable individuals aren’t victim to welfare fraud. Such methods could also be used as a means of age verification for the purchase of alcohol or other age-limited products and could also extend to effective means of registration in schools and universities, enabling staff to keep better track of student’s attendance – and as a clear deterrent for absentees!

Avoiding a ‘big brother’

Before this change can be implemented on a grand scale, it is paramount to consider the extent to which the general population is comfortable sharing more personal data with the Government. Whilst this is yet to be determined, one thing that is certain is that the key to the success of biometric authentication in Government ID lies in striking the balance between privacy and convenience. After all, following various high-profile data breaches and suspicions of Government infringements, we live in a society that is becoming increasingly sceptical about sharing personal information.

Whether consumers realise it or not, facial recognition has long been used as a method of authentication to prove identity, whether through surveillance to monitor for criminal activity or through UK border control at airports, which we as a nation have become accustomed to. The use of biometrics has also broken into the consumer tech market, with smart phones using fingerprint and iris recognition in place of passwords, which have become broadly accepted. However, there are regular debates around the superiority of fingerprint-recognition versus its biometric counterparts, such as facial and iris recognition.

The reality is facial-recognition relies on external databases to store and compare data, whereas fingerprint-recognition only requires the user’s information to be stored on the card itself, removing the attractiveness for cyber criminals on the lookout for a central database of fingerprint data. Fingerprints are also far less prone to change than facial features and irises that could be duped via contact lenses, so it is a more accurate form of authentication.

The biometric revolution is not a distant fantasy, but a very pressing reality, so it is essential that the Government acts fast to establish how the technology can be implemented and utilised properly. This can only be achieved through stringent legislation to support adoption and greater understanding.

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