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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 September 2005, 12:16 GMT 13:16 UK
'Biometrics roadshow' wows shoppers
By Ben Jeffrey
BBC News Interactive

A member of the public being shown the biometric technology
The Home Office display was a hit with shoppers at Merry Hill
The six-strong team which is running the Home Office's "biometric roadshow" seems to be preaching to the converted at the Merry Hill Shopping Centre near Dudley in the Black Country.

It is showcasing the use of face-recognition technology - and ultimately the possibility of iris-scanning and fingerprinting - to make UK passports more difficult to forge and to use fraudulently.

Each person I speak to who has seen the computer demonstration explaining how the biometric technology works is impressed.

A typical response about the desirability of such measures comes from Barry Burton, from nearby Netherton.

If the ID card didn't exist, this would all still be happening
Home Office spokesperson

"I'm all for making everything more secure," he says. "If you've got nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear."

The roadshow is on stop three of a seven-day tour of the UK, in what has been described as a "charm offensive" to promote biometric passports and, ultimately, the government's ID card scheme, which will also rely on biometric technology.

The ID scheme is to be run by a new government agency, which will also incorporate the functions of the UK passport service from 2008. From that date, anybody who wants a passport would be obliged to get an identity card, under the government's plans.

Nick Drew, 30, from campaign group No2ID, has set up his own stall within a few metres of the Home Office posse.

No2ID campaigner Nick Drew canvassing shoppers
The No2ID display consisted of a table, a chair and some stickers...
He has given up his lunch break to talk with shoppers about potential problems posed by the use of biometric technology for passports and ID cards.

"Forty million names on a database with no bad records on it - that's next to an ID impossibility," Mr Drew told BBC News.

"There'll be computer failings, there'll be civil servants taking the biometric data who don't know how to use the machines properly.

The Home Office stand set up at Merry Hill Shopping Centre
...while the Home Office stand was a little more hi-tech

"And the cost of ID cards will be astronomical, running into billions of pounds."

He added: "If you want to do something about preventing terrorism and policing immigration, surely employing more people to do those things is the answer, rather than building a massive database."

Mr Drew says he is pleased to have collected about 20 signatures on his petition opposing a biometric ID card scheme, but he and I are both disappointed not to get an audience with Andy Burnham, the Home Office minister running the roadshow.

An aide tells us Mr Burnham has had a minor car crash and cannot make it to Merry Hill, but the aide and another Home Office spokesperson stand in for their absent boss.

"If the ID card didn't exist, this would all still be happening," she says.

'James Bond'

"Countries around the world are using biometrics (for passports). September 11 brought all this to the fore and accelerated everybody's programmes."

She said it was a fact that a lot of people involved in terrorist activities had false identities and that if anybody was relying on multiple documents to commit crimes, the new passports would make that more difficult.

Her colleague added: "We also want to demystify this a bit. People think that the technology, especially iris technology, is a bit James Bond."

He preferred to concentrate on the potential benefits of biometric passports, rather than discuss in detail the workability of the ID card scheme, which he pointed out has not yet been passed by Parliament.

But he made it clear that the government intended to press ahead with its efforts to improve security, adding: "Sitting still is not an option."

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