Critics turn up the heat on UK's ID card plan

Critics turn up the heat on UK's ID card plan

Concern is mounting in political circles over the U.K. government's plan to couple ID cards that use biometric technology with a massive national database.

"The Government's plan for compulsory identity cards is a bad idea, in a bad bill, introduced for the worst possible motives," Peter Lilley wrote in a scathing assessment of the Identity Cards Bill. The report by the Member of Parliament and former government minister was published this week by the Conservative Party think tank, The Bow Group.

Additionally, the government's Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) said in its report published last week that the legislation potentially infringes the European Convention on Human Rights.

Prime Minster Tony Blair and his government are pushing legislation to create a system of ID cards that carry biometric identifiers in an embedded chip, which would in turn be linked to a "secure national database" to be created by 2010. The database would hold, for each person carrying the ID card, personal information including name, address and biometric information such as fingerprints, facial scans and iris scans.

The JCHR expressed concerns that some of the information contained in the database may not "serve a legitimate aim or be proportional to that aim." The report also questioned the government's intention to gather and hold vast amounts of personal information "without the knowledge or consent of the individual concerned."

In a letter sent on Jan. 26 to Charles Clarke, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, the Committee requested clarification by Feb. 7 on its human rights concerns.

Blair and Clarke have both repeatedly characterized the biometric ID cards as crucial in the government's fight against identity fraud, illegal workers, illegal immigration, terrorism and illegal use of government entitlement programs such as the National Health System (NHS).

But Lilley accused the government of promoting a false solution that would waste considerable amounts of taxpayer money simply because the notion of ID cards is currently polling well with U.K. citizens.

ID cards, Lilley wrote, "have the smack of modernity -- witness Ministers' talk of biometrics, smart cards and new technology; they are nakedly populist; they make Britain more like our European neighbors, many of whom have identity card schemes of one sort or another and they reflect (the government's) desire to nanny and control us."

According to Lilley, a former Secretary of State, simple arithmetic from the government's own figures suggests the total cost of the Identity Cards Bill, should it become law, would be £5.5 billion (US$10.4 billion) over 10 years.

Lilley was also critical of the technology itself, pointing to a Cabinet Office study that said biometric tests would incorrectly identify individuals between 10 percent and 15 percent of the time. "So if every adult card holder were checked just once a year there would upwards of 4 million people a year who would be falsely accused of not being who they actually are," Lilley said.

Lastly, Lilley questioned the U.K. government's track record on implementing large scale IT systems. "The public sector's record in the successful implementation of IT projects is woeful; and this would be the biggest (failure) yet," he said.

Numerous and highly embarrassing IT system failures have plagued the U.K. government, including the collapse last November of a system used by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), described as the biggest computer crash in government history. The DWP's Child Support Agency has also been struggling with a £456 million system from Electronic Data Systems Corp. that the government is considering abandoning.

The NHS' massive infrastructure upgrade is giving the U.K. government additional IT headaches. The project is behind schedule and ballooning in price from £6.2 billion to at least £15 billion by current government estimates.

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