House of Commons passes U.K. biometric ID card plan

U.K. moves toward requiring all citizens to carry ID cards containing biometric information

The British Parliament's House of Commons easily passed a bill yesterday to establish a system of biometric identity cards and a central database of all of its citizens. However, the bill's primary sponsor, the secretary of state for the Home Department, said the ID card bill may hit stiff opposition in the House of Lords.

The Identity Cards Bill, introduced to Parliament on Nov. 29, seeks to create by 2010 a system of ID cards with embedded chips that carry personal information and biometric identifiers. The information will include each citizen's name, address and biometric information such as fingerprints, facial scans and iris scans, all of which will be included in a massive database called the National Identification Register.

The ID Cards Bill, which is expected to cost up to $10.3 billion to implement, was approved in the House of Commons by a vote of 224 to 64. The plan calls for a stand-alone biometric ID card to be issued alongside a biometric passport. It would most likely become compulsory for everyone living in the U.K., including children, by 2012. The U.K.'s population is about 60 million.

The vote came on the same day that the U.S. House of Representatives approved its own version of electronic ID card legislation in a 261-161 vote. The U.S. Real ID Act would require states to issue driver's licenses and other ID cards with physical security features such as a digital photograph and other basic data, using what the bill describes as machine-readable technology. That could include a magnetic strip or radio frequency identification tag.

U.K. Prime Minster Tony Blair and Secretary of State for the Home Department Charles Clarke have said the biometric ID cards are a crucial part of the government's fight against identity fraud, illegal workers, illegal immigration, terrorism and abuse of programs such as the National Health Service (NHS). The Labor government has indicated that it wants to get the ID card law in place before the general election expected in May.

"The reason why this measure is supported not only by the government but by the police and the security services is that people believe that, particularly when we have biometric passports and the biometric technology available, we can construct an identity card that gives us the best possible protection against crime and terrorism," Blair said in the House of Commons on Wednesday. "I do not think it is wrong or a breach of anyone's civil liberties to say that we should have an identity card. Most people carry some form of identification anyway. I think it is long overdue, and we should get on and do it."

Still, Clarke indicated this week that the bill may face opposition in the House of Lords, where it is now headed. The House of Lords is the second of the U.K.'s two Houses of Parliament and has the power to block bills passed in the House of Commons.

The U.K. has already determined that a chip with biometric facial identifiers will be included in all newly issued British passports by the end of 2005. The U.K. Passport Service would use that information and technology as a basis for the ID card plan, a spokesman for the Home Office said.

The Passport Service recently completed a six-month trial of biometric technology involving 10,000 volunteers and plans to issue the findings within the next few months, the spokesman said.

The trial, run by Atos Origin SA, tested three biometrics types: electronic fingerprint, an iris scan and a full-face scan. Atos Origin was responsible for the delivery and installation of the equipment and the software used for the trial; NEC Corp. supplied the fingerprint identification system; Identix Inc. provided the fingerprint capture and facial matching technology; and Iridian Technologies Inc. supplied the iris recognition technology.

Despite the government's apparent faith in the accuracy of biometric technologies, some banks and credit card companies have yet to implement them on the grounds that they are not accurate enough.

"We've found that the false positive [identifications] are still too high," said Johan Gerber, associate vice president of MasterCard International Inc.'s risk products division, in an interview earlier this week. "We don't feel that it's ready to roll out just yet."

MasterCard is interested in using biometric technology in credit cards in the future, and biometrics are already used on a much smaller scale to grant access to regular visitors of some of its offices, he added.

Groups such as the Law Society, the professional body for lawyers in England and Wales, have expressed concerns that the ID card program tries to achieve too much and that the Home Office has not shown that the program would stop identity fraud. Additionally, security experts have warned that such a massive database could be subject to attacks by hackers, terrorists or other criminals.

According to Ovum Ltd. analyst Graham Titterington, the legislation lacks measures to ensure the accuracy of the data being entered or to allow individuals to check their information in the database.

Richard Allan, a member of parliament and board member of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, opposes the ID Cards Bill because he sees the technology behind it as unproven and too expensive.

"There are so many unknowns about the biometric technology," Allan said in a posting on his Web site blog, "... that it would be irresponsible to approve the scheme at present."

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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