U.K. jumps back on the biometric ID card bandwagon

Government committed to establishing system of ID cards with embedded chips by 2010

LONDON -- The U.K. government on Wednesday reintroduced its high-tech plans for a national identity card program using biometric technology, this time promising to answer concerns raised by the opposition parties earlier in the year over civil liberties and the Home Office's ability to oversee large scale IT projects.

The Labour government once again committed itself to establishing by 2010 a system of ID cards with embedded chips that carry personal information and biometric identifiers. The information would include each citizen's name, address and biometric information such as fingerprints, face scans, and iris scans, all of which would be included in a National Identification Register database.

U.K. Prime Minster Tony Blair told the House of Commons on Wednesday that identity theft costs the U.K. "billions of pounds each year," and urged Members of Parliament (MPs) to back the government's plans for addressing the problem.

Blair and the bill's principal sponsor, Secretary of State for the Home Department Charles Clarke, have been unwavering in their assertion that the biometric ID cards are a powerful and much-needed weapon in the fight against terrorism, identity fraud, illegal workers, illegal immigration, and illegal use of government entitlement programs such as the National Health System.

However, earlier in the week, Clarke said the new version of the bill gives greater authority to the National Identity Scheme Commissioner, who oversees the program, as well as adding limits on the database access granted to government agencies.

The Identity Cards Bill has been highly controversial since it was first introduced in Parliament last November. Critics in all three of the U.K.'s primary political parties have denounced the legislation's estimated £3 billion ($5.5 billion) price tag, while questioning the readiness of the technology involved in the project and the wisdom of establishing a massive database holding sensitive information on each of the approximately 60 million people residing in the U.K.

Last April, faced with uncertain support and a looming general election, the Labour government pulled its original legislation. Since retaining its ruling position on May 5, the government made good on its promise to quickly put the bill back on the national agenda.

The leading opposition Conservative party had initially thrown its support behind the first version of the ID Cards Bill but later insisted the government's plans had to pass five tests. Those tests cover issues connected to the technology and a call for the legislation to "clearly define" the purpose of the cards as well as prove the cost effectiveness of the plan. If those tests are not met, it would be unlikely that the Conservatives would support the new version of the bill, said party spokesman Alan Sendorek.

"Past efforts by the government and the Home Office in particular, to implement large-scale IT projects have proven to be shambolic," Sendorek said. "When we took a closer look at the ID Cards Bill the first time around, we found glaring problems. Furthermore, the government's answers to our questions, when they addressed them at all, were half baked."

The smaller opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, have never supported the ID Cards Bill, calling the plan too expensive, ineffective and a threat to civil liberties. The government is also facing opposition to the bill within its own party with Labour MPs like Gwyneth Dunwoody promising to oppose the plan.

Later on Wednesday, the government also promised to publish the results of the U.K. Passport Service (UKPS) biometric technology enrollment trial launched in April 2004. Over the course of six months, the UKPS used 10,000 volunteers to test three biometrics traits: an electronic fingerprint, an iris scan and a full-face scan. At the time, the UKPS said the trial's primary purpose was to gage public reaction to the biometric technology by simulating a potential future biometric collection process.

The UKPS is set to begin including biometric facial identifiers in new passports starting this December or in January 2006. The U.K. government has always planned to use the UKPS effort to build the base for the ID card plan and its resulting database.

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.