Full biometrics ID plan to reach U.K. by 2009

E-passports with facial biometrics are headed to the U.K. next year. Fingerprints will be added by 2009, passport agency says.

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Passports and ID cards with facial biometrics are set to hit the U.K. early next year--and fingerprints are expected to be in both by 2009.

The long-awaited passports will include a microchip that holds a digitized facial image with space to hold further biometric technology if required by U.K. policy or an EU directive.

Speaking at the Biometrics 2005 conference in London, Bernard Herdan, chief executive of the U.K. Passport Service (UKPS), said Thursday that the passports would be phased in by February 2006 and completed by July 2006.

"We have to make sure that as we cross from digital production to e-passport production that the technology works in all other countries," Herdan said.

The move may have been spurred by U.S. demands for all countries within its visa-waiver program to have a machine-readable biometric passport by October 2005.

Existing U.K. passport holders will not need to have their passports updated, but they will have to comply with the new guidelines when they renew or replace their passports, Herdan said.

E-passports will incorporate a special chip that stores basic data, including the passport holder's name, and date and place of birth.

U.K. ID cards will be issued with the passports, which will contain finger and thumb images; two iris images; and facial images. These will also be stored on a National Identification Register. Herdan explained that "this is all part of a more holistic approach to move towards more rigorous identification."

The chips will be embedded in the front cover of the passport. New applicants will also face an interview for further authentication.

"We believe there is a pressing need for an improved integrated system of identity authentication. One part of this is the Personal Identity Project, through which information supplied by passport applicants is checked against information held on private and public sector databases," Herdan said.

"Facial recognition has to be the direction the travel industry is heading in," he added. "We want to move to an environment where airlines are doing pre-board checks, but our first step is to secure our borders."

Karen Gomm of ZDNet UK reported from London.