Government slammed for ID database 'shambles'

Opponents of the ID card scheme say the government is confused about its goals, while the Home Office argues that it cannot be specific about an incremental process

The government said on Tuesday that it had no fixed plans for the form and structure of the database that will underpin its proposed ID card scheme, sparking more criticism from experts and critics of the plan.

"The configuration of the system may change as we go into procurement. We're not saying "It has to be like this", but we're learning from procurements in the past. Things aren't set in stone," said Andy Burnham MP, Home Office minister responsible for ID cards and passports.

Burnham was speaking at a Westminster eForum. His statement drew severe criticism from London School of Economics (LSE) academics, who accused the government of not fully understanding the technology needed for a national identity scheme.

"The Home Office keeps changing its specifications and goals. The government is incapable of saying what this beast will look like," Simon Davies, a visiting fellow at LSE, told ZDNet UK on Wednesday.

"I'm convinced this is going to be the last big government IT project, because it will be such a diabolical shambles," added Professor Ian Angell, head of LSE's department of information systems.

On Monday the government won a key victory when MPs voted in favour of a proposal that anyone applying for or renewing a passport from 2008 will be required to apply for an ID card and have their biometric details added to a national identity register.

But the government admitted on Tuesday that it could not use its existing databases for the scheme, due to their unreliability, and said that people would "enrol" onto a new database when applying for a passport.

"At the moment it's a patchwork of unreliable databases. The passport database is not geared as a verification tool," said Burnham. "The ID scheme will not take information from existing databases. Everyone will come through an enrolment process, as people come to enrol for a biometric passport. There will be an ID check, and we will go the extra mile to make sure there's a high-quality entry system," Burnham said. "It is our intention that this becomes a compulsory scheme."

The Home Office claims that individuals would be empowered by the scheme through greater access to public services. "Individuals will have greater access to their data. A national ID record will provide seamless access to public services," said Burnham.

Professor Angell said he found the idea "hysterically funny".

"Anyone who has worked in IT knows that systems aren't perfect," said Angell. "Bugs in a complex system are inescapable. The government just doesn't understand the animal."

The Home Office also said that it had not conducted any technological trials yet.

"We haven't conducted a full technology trial yet, but we have done an enrolment trial for biometrics," said Burnham. "The technology will be built up incrementally, on the back of the passport system. We're not just going to flick a switch," he added.