June 28, 2005

Britain to debate world’s most ambitious ID scheme

By Kate Holton

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain debates the divisive issue ofidentity cards on Tuesday as Prime Minister Tony Blair pressesforward with the world's most ambitious biometric ID system tocounter terrorism and illegal immigration.

Lawmakers look set to approve the cards, which would usebiometric technology in fingerprint, face and iris recognition.

If accepted, it would be the first time Britons havecarried ID cards since they were abolished after World War IIby the government of Winston Churchill.

Critics, who say cards are expensive, unnecessary andintrusive, fear they would eventually become compulsory. NeilFisher, director of security and intelligence at Britishtechnology group QinetiQ, said many other countries werewatching the British progress.

"Nobody has ever undertaken an identity card system withthis complexity before, using three biometrics ..." he toldReuters.

"America in particular is watching us with close interestand I think if we do go forward with this and we get it right,it will be a model for many people to follow."


The opposition Conservative and Liberal Democrat partiessay they will vote against the cards.

"We can see no benefits, huge costs and a serious risk tocivil liberties and privacy," Conservative shadow HomeSecretary David Davis said on Tuesday.

"This proposal won't work," he added. "It won't do what'sbeing offered here, which is to deal with either terrorism orillegal immigration. It will have huge costs and it will haveserious flaws."

Although Blair's House of Commons majority was reduced inMay's election, and some of his Labour members of parliamentmay vote against in protest, political analysts do not expectthe plan to be rejected.

A study on Monday said the cost of the scheme could soar to19 billion pounds ($35 billion) -- three times officialestimates -- but Blair dismissed it as wildly exaggerated.

QinetiQ's Fisher said while cards could not rule outidentity fraud completely, it could stop people having morethan one identity.

"Some fraudsters have between 70 to 140 differentidentities. With the new cards, they could have one differentidentity but only one and they would be caught eventually."

But he was concerned the government was not testing thesystem comprehensively with computer models and said this wasvital if the cards were to succeed.

Voluntary cards would not be introduced before 2008 at theearliest and they would not be made compulsory before 2013, andonly then if parliament agrees, the government says.

ID cards are used in about a dozen EU countries, althoughthey are not always compulsory and do not carry as much data.

Tuesday's vote is the start of a long parliamentary processwhich will see the bill debated many times.