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Facial recognition dropped from Estonian national biometric system amid funding crunch


Estonia is planning to drop the facial recognition component of its new national biometric identification system due to budget constraints, and the process of launching the system is now expected to be complete two years behind schedule in 2022, according to EER.

The system was originally supposed to be up and running by May, 2020 for state agencies and companies after it was announced in the summer of 2017, and then given a €20 million budget. The automatic biometric personal identification system was expected to be launched within three years, and an initial plan announced with the funding said it could take only six months.

An official from the audit division within the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Tarmo Olgo, said the original estimate that the tender process could begin three months after the project was begun was unrealistic due to the analysis necessary for procurement of such a major IT solution. The head of the Police and Border Guard Board’s (PPA’s) identity and status bureau said too much time was spent arguing over whether the system should hold biographic data in addition to biometrics.

“Next to biometric data, the memorandum also treated with biography. The scope of the memorandum concerned a central personal information database that was perhaps a little too ambitious and not very rational in terms of personal data protection. Discussing and arguing over this logic has taken up too much time,” says Margit Ratnik.

The system is now expected to cost €27 million, and additional work will be necessary to make the quality of fingerprint data from databases operated by different government agencies consistent enough for use, according to the report. The PPA is seeking additional funding, and asked for €9.2 million in the spring, but received just over €1 million.

Estonia is considered a world leader in digital identity system design and implementation, with significant online voting five years ago, but now a small-scale pilot project will be carried out to see if the planned PPA biometric system is even feasible.

“We know today that it is unlikely we will be able to build a system like the one invisaged in 2017 for the money we have,” says Olgo. “Rather, the ministry will have to determine what can and cannot be done and go back to the government to ask whether there is still interest in the idea and whether we’re prepared to contribute more resources. Perhaps we should learn from various past megaprojects.”

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