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UK Jumps Back on the Biometric ID Card Bandwagon
Tony Blair renews call for compulsory national electronic identity cards.

IDG News Service | May 25, 2005
By Laura Rohde

LONDON -- The UK government today 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 by 2010 a system of ID cards with embedded chips carrying personal information and biometric identifiers. 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.

UK 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.

"Much Needed"

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, 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 United Kingdom's main political parties have denounced the legislation's estimated $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 who reside in the United Kingdom.

Background

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, however, the government has made good on its promise to put the bill back on the national agenda quickly.

Later on Wednesday, 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 U.K. government has always planned to use the UKPS effort to build the base for the ID card plan and its resulting database.

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