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UK extends Gov.uk Verify funding, accused of risking asylum-seekers’ health with biometrics collection

UK extends Gov.uk Verify funding, accused of risking asylum-seekers’ health with biometrics collection

Gov.uk Verify, U.K.’s digital identity system, will continue to receive funding, the Treasury decided, due to an increase in Universal Credit applications due to coronavirus, writes Computer Weekly.

Although funding was to end in April 2020, the Treasury announced the deadline would extend for an additional 18 months. In 2018, Oliver Dowden, Cabinet Office minister at the time, set the April 2020 deadline. So far, the government has spent roughly £175 million (US$216 million).

Since the end of March, more than 1.4 million people have applied for Universal Credit, while 400,000 were using the identity verification system for the first time. Due to delays, only 35 percent of applicants could successfully set up a Verify account, as people who did not have a passport, driving license and credit history had to confirm identity by calling the call center.

To make the process smoother, users of the Department for Work and Pensions’ (DWP) Government Gateway system were allowed to omit the Verify step.

“The coronavirus pandemic has led to unprecedented demand for key online services using digital identity such as Universal Credit,” said Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, according to the publication.

“In this light, the chief secretary to the Treasury has given approval to the Cabinet Office to continue Gov.uk Verify operations for up to a further 18 months. The government has also taken steps to bolster the resilience of the service which is facing an unprecedented level of usage.”

Last year, the UK government announced a series of steps to revive the program, following criticism based on poor public uptake with low verification rates.

In March, the program’s digital identity chief resigned and moved into the private sector.

Despite COVID-19 threats, U.K.’s Home Office requires asylum-seekers to show up in person to register their claim, give biometric information (fingerprints and photographs) and have a screening interview, yet legislation says this practice can be postponed, says Privacy International. Eurodac legislation requires biometric enrollment within 72 hours, but with conditions for departing from this deadline based on public health protection measures.

Therefore, Privacy International is accusing the department of jeopardizing asylum-seekers’ health by risking exposure to coronavirus and “forcing them into a legal limbo.” The organization calls for a suspension of biometric data collection at this point and for screening interviews to be conducted remotely.

The organization also warns of mission creep around the biometric tracking of immigrants and asylum-seekers.

NextgenID recently launched remote in-person proofing kiosks for U.S. government agencies to collect biometrics while continuing physical distancing, while Russia’s government has introduced legislation to support remote self-enrollment of biometrics for the country’s banking database.

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