Security

Cheat Sheet: ID cards

All you need to know about the government's proposed biometric ID card scheme…
Didn't we used to have ID cards back in World War II?

Well spotted. The UK last had a paper-based ID card introduced during the second world war to allow people to get their food ration, stop them from dodging conscription and make sure they weren't German.

But we got rid of the ID cards after the war didn't we?

Correct again. They were dropped in 1952 but the UK government will formally launch a bill to introduce mandatory ID cards in the Queen's Speech this week. And this time we're not talking about a flimsy bit of paper with your details on it. The Home Secretary David Blunkett wants an all-singing, all-dancing compulsory high-tech biometric ID card.

Doesn't he know the Cold War's over? Why do we need ID cards again?

It's a different kind of threat we're facing this time, according to Blunkett. He believes a biometric ID card will help in the fight against terrorism, illegal immigration, illegal working and organised crime. More specifically he says it will stop criminals being able to use multiple identities and will save the taxpayer millions by making sure only those entitled to use public services such as the NHS actually receive them.

Sounds a worthy enough reason but how much is it all going to cost?

It's currently predicted to cost around £3bn. The government claims most of the cost will be covered by the charge for the ID card.

The new ID cards will cost £15 and will be issued alongside passports, which will double to £85. But there's already controversy about how much it could actually end up costing with many opponents saying this calculation doesn't take into account all the biometric card readers that will need to be installed everywhere from GPs' surgeries to Post Office counters.

Some experts have also questioned whether it is a proportionate response to the stated threats that Blunkett believes we are facing.

What biometric technology will be used on the card?

The government is investigating this at the moment but Blunkett wants as many biometric identifiers as possible on the card. The Home Office ran a trial over the summer – which silicon.com took part in - enrolling 10,000 volunteers for a mock ID card using iris scans, facial recognition and a fingerprint scan. The results of the trial will be released later this year and used for the basis of a decision on what biometrics should be included.

Is the technology up to it? I thought using biometrics on that scale was just something out of Minority Report?

This is another bone of contention for opponents of the scheme. Blunkett says biometrics would have to be introduced with or without an ID card in order to comply with forthcoming international border arrangements that mean travellers going to places like the US will only be allowed in with a biometric passport.

Opponents, however, claim biometrics have never been deployed on this scale for such an important project. Indeed, payment industry body APACS recently said the banking industry had ruled out biometrics on credit and debit cards because the false rejection levels are still too high for use on that kind of scale. For the low-down on biometrics, check out another of silicon.com's Cheat Sheets here.

So how will it all work?

The idea is that on a day-to-day level if you visited your doctor or went to claim some state benefit payment you would present your ID card, which will have an embedded chip that holds all of your biometric data on it. The person checking the card would use a card reader in conjunction with a biometric scanner for one of the identifiers such as iris or fingerprint. You would be scanned and this would then check it matched to the information on the card.

What about this big central 'Big Brother'-style database that goes with it?

There will be a vast National Identity Register, which will hold all sorts of your personal details, which can be accessed by various government departments and agencies, intelligence services and the police. Every time you use the card, that 'transaction' will be logged on the system.

Whoa there - doesn't that mean the government will be able to track my every movement?

This is another bone of contention. Blunkett claims the proposed ID card Bill provides enough protection to individuals that their data won't be accessed by anyone who shouldn't see it and that it won't be misused and there will be an ID card 'commissioner' to oversee this. Blunkett even suggested recently that supermarket loyalty cards are more of a privacy threat than ID cards.

He's got a point, hasn't he?

Yes, except private sector firms have to comply with the UK's Data Protection Act, which governs how your data can be used. This is overseen by the Information Commissioner, who believes the ID card bill currently won't comply with the DPA, particularly because it does not allow for the commissioner to audit or check the ID card system without prior permission from the government.

While most of us won't leave very interesting data trails, privacy activists argue it will lead to the targeting of certain racial and religious sections of society. Blunkett's response has been to dismiss the Big Brother surveillance accusations as "ludicrous" and tell privacy activists to "get real".

What if I don't fancy one of these ID cards?

Then you'd better get saving up because you'll either have to move to a different country or face a £2,500 fine for refusing to get an ID card.

Looks like a done deal then. When do I get one?

The ID card legislation will start its way through Parliament this week with its inclusion in the Queen's Speech. The government wants to get it approved before the general election next year. Once it gets the expected green light from MPs the procurement process will begin. And from 2007 everyone applying for a new or renewal passport will pay the extra charge to get their compulsory biometric ID card.

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