The Home Office plans to spend up to £16m on facial recognition technology for the Identity and Passport Service.
A tender notice in the European Union's Official Journal (OJEU) popped up this week that showed that Theresa May's department was now on the hunt for providers of a Facial Recognition Engine and a Facial Recognition Workflow for the IPS.
Suppliers who successfully bid for the contracts worth £1m to £4m and £6m to £15m respectively will be required to develop technology that can also be reused by other public sector bodies.
The Register asked the Home Office to explain what this meant in practice. May's department gave us this statement:
Facial recognition technology will allow the IPS to analyse images that have already been provided by customers in a new way by comparing an applicant’s new facial image with the one on record for their previous passport.
This will improve IPS’s ability to prevent and tackle fraudulent passport applications.
IPS is procuring this software for their own use, but the tender also includes a clause that allows other government departments or agencies to purchase the software without going through an expensive procurement process again. This is to ensure best value for money for the taxpayer.
But the Home Office's estimated cost of procurement for the technology, which has a contract duration of at least five years, has already come under fire. Computer security expert Ross Anderson told El Reg:
If they advertised for someone to do it in six months for a price under the OJEU limit, they might actually get some empirical results and learn something.
What I predict they'd learn is that the false reject rate will be pretty high if they have a list of 300,000 bad guys. I presume the bad guys are those who have in the past tried to apply for British passports using dodgy credentials. (A typical routine is that a guy from Pakistan applies for a UK passport using the personal information of a UK Asian man who has not applied for a passport yet.)
But with 300,000 on the blacklist, quite a few of the 20,000 applications per day will throw up a screenful of close facial matches.
Last year, iris scanners used by the Border Agency came under sharp criticism from MPs, after allegations surfaced that suggested the machines were malfunctioning - leading to staff discouraging travellers from using e-Gates.
"Obviously there's lots of new technology that's coming through at the moment - biometric passports, fingerprints - so UKBA is reviewing all the technologies that are in place and iris scanning is one of them," a UKBA spokeswoman told the Reg in February last year, after the scanner tech was effectively mothballed. ®