The UK government yesterday reintroduced high-tech plans for a national identity card program using biometric technology. This time around, the Labour government promised to answer concerns raised by opposition parties earlier this year over civil liberties and the Home Office's ability to oversee large scale IT projects.
The plan calls for establishing a system of ID cards with embedded chips carrying personal information and biometric identifiers by 2010.
The information would include each citizen's name and address, along with biometric details such as fingerprints, face scans, and iris scans, all of which would be included in a National Identification Register database.
Prime Minster Tony Blair told the House of Commons on Wednesday that identity theft costs the United Kingdom "billions of pounds each year", and urged members of Parliament to back the government's plans for addressing the problem.
Blair and the bill's principal sponsor, Home Secretary Charles Clarke, have been unwavering in their assertion that the biometric ID cards are a powerful, 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.
Earlier in the week, however, Clarke said that the new version of the bill gives greater authority to the National Identity Scheme Commissioner, who oversees the program, as well as imposing limits on the database access granted to government agencies.
The Identity Cards Bill has been highly controversial since it was introduced in Parliament last November. Critics in all three of the main political parties have denounced the legislation's estimated £3bn 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 60m people who reside in the United Kingdom.
Later on yesterday, the government also promised to publish the results of the UK 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 that the trial's primary purpose was to gauge 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 in December 2005 or in January 2006. The UK government has always planned to use the UKPS effort to build the base for the ID card plan and its resulting database.