Leader: ID cards fight must go on

The bill might now be law but it's still a costly dog's dinner of a scheme
Written by silicon.com staff, Contributor

The bill might now be law but it's still a costly dog's dinner of a scheme

After a two-year struggle the government finally got its way this week when the Conservative Party lost its nerve and backed down over the controversial ID cards bill.

Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons and the House of Lords had been united in opposing the introduction of ID cards until the climb-down, presented as a 'compromise', finally let the government off the hook.

The Tories came out straight after giving in to say they will scrap the bill if they win the next general election. Big words from the bottlers in blue but given the amount of money that will likely have been spent on the ID card scheme by then and the number of contracts that will have been signed - presumably with costly get-out clauses - that's going to be a difficult thing to do.

Not all the Conservatives caved in. While shadow Home Secretary David Davis decided to side with the Home Secretary on this one, some of the more tech-savvy Conservative MPs, such as Grant Shapps, maintained their opposition to the end.

It's foolish to believe there has been any compromise. Yes, until 2010 you'll have the option of declining an ID card when you renew your passport but you still have to pay for the cost of the card regardless of whether you receive it and you'll still have your fingerprint and iris scans stored in the national identity database.

Home Secretary Charles Clarke, frustrated by the delays in passing the bill, has wasted no time and the new Identity and Passport Service begins work in earnest from this Saturday - April Fool's day, no less.

No doubt tenders have been readied for the IT suppliers chomping at the bit to cash in on this project.

Here on silicon.com we will shift the focus of our ID Cards on Trial campaign towards scrutinising the procurement and delivery of the scheme every step of the way.

None of our original concerns over the cost, scope and benefits of ID cards have been answered satisfactorily by the government and so we will persevere. Indeed, having watched hours of parliamentary debates on the topic, we are now even more convinced that figures are being plucked from thin air and that the government is making some dangerous assumptions.

The London School of Economics estimates ID cards will cost up to £19bn over 10 years and that figure remains the only definitive public costing of the scheme to date, despite criticisms from the Home Office that it is flawed.

Meanwhile numerous technology experts have raised questions about the reliability of biometrics used on this scale and the near impossibility of securing a vast national identity database holding the personal information, biometrics and audit trail of most of the UK population.

Then there are the privacy implications - and the lack of scrutiny of the ID card scheme and database afforded to the UK's data protection watchdog, the Information Commissioner.

The Home Office wants us to trust it on this one. That'll be the same Home Office that can't be tasked with keeping its own books in order and that has failed to deliver a national firearms database for the police in the 10 years following the Dunblane school shootings.

The Home Office will undoubtedly try and keep a lid on the ID card scheme but we will continue to investigate the costs and technical underpinnings. And the IT suppliers who sign up for ID card contracts will also see their work watched carefully by the media, nowhere more so than on these pages.

That's the limit of our campaign - which all along has been based on feasibility rather than principles - but for those who want to take more direct action there are other avenues. Opposition group No2ID, for example, has vowed to fight on, warning that ID cards will become as unpopular as the Poll Tax once the wider general public realises the full implications.

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