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Exclusive: Next-generation super ID card on the cards for 2012

Identity card could come with a raft of new features - and even a free upgrade - under government proposals...

Identity card could come with a raft of new features - and even a free upgrade - under government proposals...

The government is considering introducing a new generation of ID cards for British citizens in 2012, complete with a raft of new features.

More than 7,000 ID cards have been issued to British people since the UK cards were made available in November last year, starting in Manchester before rolling out across the North West and to select groups across the UK.

ID cards

The current version of the ID card for British citizens
(Image credit: Home Office)

The proposed upgraded cards would be issued from 2012, when ID cards will be made available to everybody living in the UK.

Speaking at an event hosted by the Social Market Foundation earlier this week, Bob Carter, public key infrastructure and encryption expert for the ID cards scheme at the IPS, told silicon.com that the first generation card "is a tactical card that we have put out very quickly.

"The strategic card has a 2012 launch when all of the main things are going to happen. That's when you will find more features in the product [card]."

Existing British citizen ID cards are designed to simply verify someone's identity using a government issued card reader, a device which reads the biographic information and the digital photo and two fingerprints stored on the ID card's embedded RFID chip, and allows an official to check those details against the person presenting the card.

The proposals currently under consideration could potentially see ID cards used to perform new tasks - such as authorising online transactions using chip and PIN and verifying the holder's identity over the internet - which are not possible with existing British ID cards today.

Among the various technical improvements being looked at...

For all there is to know on ID cards, check out the A to Z of ID Cards

...by the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) are fitting the new cards with a chip that would include the EMV technology standard that underpins chip and PIN transactions in UK credit and debit cards or a digital encryption and signature capability.

Carter said there would be no way to retrofit existing British ID cards to add chip and PIN functionality to the card's chip, saying it is "too small".

Upgrading the range of tasks that ID cards can be used for could help persuade more businesses to start using ID cards to authorise services and transactions.

Currently the card's use is largely limited to proving that someone is over 18 when accessing nightclubs or buying age-restricted goods such as alcohol and cigarettes.

Last year the UK payment card industry association, then known as Apacs, said most useful capabilities, such as chip and PIN functionality, had been removed from ID cards.

next generation ID cards

ID cards could one day get Chip and PIN functionality
(Photo credit: Shutterstock)

The EMV technology standard that underpins chip and PIN transactions in UK credit and debit cards could be vital in any attempt to make chip and PIN ID cards useful.

EMV is the common technology standard used in card readers and ATMs in the UK that allows them to recognise all chip and PIN cards and be used to authenticate payments and withdrawals at shops and banks across the country. It stands for Europay, MasterCard and Visa, the three payment groups that originally developed the standard.

With chip and PIN ID cards, holders could access new government and private sector services online using the PIN to verify their identity. Business too could take advantage of such functionality: instead of phoning an IPS verification line to check staff have permission to work in the UK, companies could ask them to verify their identity using the card's PIN.

Identity minister Meg Hillier, speaking at the Social Market Foundation event, said the ID card should "evolve as technology changes".

"Chip and PIN has reduced fraud in the banking and telecoms sector and there is huge potential in those sectors for identity cards as well.

"Online there are also opportunities that are very exciting and need exploring," she added.

Talking about possible future uses for the British citizen ID card Hillier praised Belgium...

For all there is to know on ID cards, check out the A to Z of ID Cards

...which is using its ID card to allow its citizens to access public services online.

"Belgium is one country that leads the way - it [the Belgian ID card] has links to the health service and employment and remote voting," she said.

Hillier's stance seems to contradict her statements last year which argued against adding too many features to ID cards, saying: "If you try and lay too much on something then you risk overwhelming it and making it too complex."

The IPS is also examining ways that it could fund - possibly with help from the private sector - giving the upgraded cards away for free to people who purchased a first-generation ID card between 2009 and 2012.

If improved cards were introduced without such a free upgrade for early adopters, the government faces the risk of an angry reaction from people who have paid £30 to buy a first-generation card, which will not expire until 2019 at the earliest and will be unable to carry out advanced functions.

Dr Gus Hosein, visiting fellow in the information systems and innovation group at the London School of Economics (LSE), said the LSE had warned the IPS to be careful about how it handled replacing ID cards in its evaluation of the ID cards project in 2005, which said the scheme could cost as much as £19bn.

ID cards

A close up of the chip on the rear of an ID card for foreign nationals
(Photo credit: Chris Beaumont/CBS Interactive)

According to Hosein, if the upgrades do take place, early adopters will have a hard time swallowing the fact they had paid £30 for a card that had gone out of date in three years or less.

"People are willing to accept that for gadgets such as the iPad but for the government to screw them in this way is unbelievable," he said.

A spokesman for the IPS said: "These ideas are at the technical development stage and are being explored as part of the work to develop identity services. No decisions have yet been taken."

For all there is to know on ID cards, check out the A to Z of ID Cards