U.K. biometric ID card plan unveiled in the Queen's Speech

Plans envision a 'secure national database' linked to the cards by 2010

The U.K. government's high-tech plans for identity cards using biometric technology was announced today in the Queen's Speech amid the traditional pomp and pageantry of the annual opening of Parliament.

Queen Elizabeth II read the government-written speech, which unveiled plans for 32 proposed laws, including the Identity Cards Bill, to be considered in the newest session of Parliament. The Queen's Speech set out the government's agenda ahead of the next general election, which the leader of the Labour government, Prime Minster Tony Blair, is widely expected to call for May 5, 2005.

The legislation proposes a system of ID cards that would carry biometric identifiers in an embedded chip and be linked to a "secure national database" to be created by 2010. Secretary of State for the Home Department David Blunkett proposed the new system last year.

The government is working to make the ID cards compulsory for everyone living in the U.K. by 2011 or 2012, Blunkett said in an interview broadcast by the British Broadcasting Corp. after the Queen's Speech. The national database would hold personal information for each person carrying the ID card, such as name, address and biometric information including fingerprints and facial and iris scans.

Blunkett said that the database is the "crucial part" of the program and will eventually be linked to the European Union's proposed registration program.

The European Commission has produced draft regulations to introduce by 2005 fingerprints and facial images on visas and resident permits for non-EU nationals. The biometric data would then be stored on national and EU databases that would be accessible through the Visa Information System held on what's called the Schengen Information System.

Ovum Ltd. analyst Graham Titterington agreed that the database is the key aspect of the system. "It is quite unique what the U.K. government is proposing and would be absolutely vast," Titterington said. "A number of European countries like Belgium and Latvia have ID cards with databases of information, but those are used primarily as an entry to e-services, whereas the U.K. plan is primarily about law and order."

Titterington warned that it's unclear how much information or what types of information could eventually be entered into the database, or even who would be given access to the database. "Just what will be in the database and who can use it needs tying down, because already you are seeing 'function creep' becoming a problem," he said.

Blunkett has repeatedly hailed the biometric ID cards as a powerful weapon 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. The queen echoed that sentiment in her speech.

"My government recognizes that we live in a time of global uncertainty with an increased threat from international terrorism and organized crime. Measures to extend opportunity will be accompanied by legislation to increase security for all," the queen said. "My government will legislate to introduce an identity cards scheme and will publish proposals to support the continuing fight against terrorism in the United Kingdom and elsewhere."

The biometric facial identifiers will be included in passports beginning next year and will then "build the base" for the ID card plan and its "clean database," Blunkett said.

But many security experts question whether such a vast database could ever be free of errors. "By its very nature, a database of that size could never be truly clean. Just in terms of data entry, how do you ensure the accuracy of the data being entered?" Ovum's Titterington said.

Titterington pointed to the U.K.'s police criminal records database, which is known to have built up numerous inaccuracies over the years. "That is a database of a much smaller scale than the one the government is proposing, and it only allows access to law enforcement officials with the highest levels of clearance," he said. "How on earth do you control legitimate access to the ID card database, let alone keep it protected from hackers and terrorists?"

Should the Identity Cards Bill become law, a new agency will incorporate the functions of the U.K. passport service and begin issuing ID cards in 2008.

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