MP: ID card scheme is 'doomed to failure'

Liberal Democrats and campaigners have slated the National Identity Scheme, following a trial of iris recognition technology
Written by Tom Espiner, Contributor

The UK government's ID cards scheme has attracted heavy criticism from a senior Liberal Democrat MP, following the publication last month of an official report into a pilot biometrics programme.

Nick Clegg MP, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, said that the official study on trials of iris-recognition equipment at airports had highlighted major failures in the technology. Clegg warned that this is further evidence that the ID cards scheme is "doomed to failure".

"Yet again the government has tried to bury another piece of bad news about its doomed identity cards project," Clegg told eGov Monitor.

Liberal Democrat Home Affairs advisor Polly MacKenzie claimed the government tried to bury the report by bringing it out during the Christmas slow-down, and depositing it straight into the House of Commons library without telling anyone it had been published.

The Liberal Democrats maintain that the study, entitled "Project IRIS Pilot Review Report", shows serious problems with the proposed ID cards scheme, which will rely on biometric identification.

"With each successive announcement it becomes more obvious that the technology simply isn't good enough to sustain such an expensive, illiberal and unnecessary scheme," said Clegg.

Problems experienced during the iris-recognition pilot included:

  • extension of the pilot due to problems with the usability of the iris recognition barrier,
  • insufficient passengers being enrolled to prove the pilot, due to enrolment room closure,
  • and the pilot being further extended due to system instability.

However, the Home Office said that the pilot scheme had been a success.

"This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the report," said a Home Office spokesperson. "There were teething problems at the beginning but now the technology works perfectly well."

At this stage, it's not clear which biometric data will be used by the ID card scheme. The Home Office told ZDNet UK on Friday that the government does not plan to include iris recognition in the initial scheme. This is because it builds on the existing introduction of biometric passports and biometric immigration documents, and there are no plans to include iris recognition in passports.

"It certainly does not mean the iris biometric has been 'ruled out'," said a Home Office spokesperson.

But critics at No2ID, the anti-ID card pressure group, have accused the government of reducing the role of iris recognition following the publication of the iris-recognition pilot study. According to No2ID, the government initially trumpeted iris recognition as being one of the more secure biometrics, but only included two short references to iris recognition in its Strategic Plan for the National Identity Scheme, published in December 2006.

A dirty database?
As well as the alleged poor performance of biometrics technology, the Liberal Democrats have numerous other concerns regarding the technology behind the ID Cards scheme.

One is the government's decision to use three existing databases — those of the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP), the Identity and Passport Service and the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) — to store people's biometric and biographic information on the proposed National Identity Register, instead of one new, clean database, according to the Liberal Democrats' MacKenzie.

"The advantage of a new database is that it's clean," MacKenzie told ZDNet UK. "If the government plans to use existing databases, they're not clean — they're full of errors and fraudulent details. Plus, organised criminals are good at planting people to steal data from government departments, as happened at the Department of Work and Pensions."

However, the Home Office said that although existing databases would be used to store the ID card data, the data collected would be fresh.

"We won't be using the information already on the systems," said the Home Office spokesperson. "In effect we'll still be using a clean database because we're creating it from scratch. It's like renting shelf space in a filing cabinet. We'll have our own shelf and key, and will generate [information assurance] to our own standards."

However, Phil Booth, national coordinator of the No2ID campaign, said that the Home Office explanation of how it would use the databases differed from previous Home Office explanations.

"That's bollocks," said Booth. "The filing cabinet is a fine analogy but what the Home Office has said in essence is that rather than use a new clean database they're going to tag personal details at the individual field of data level. Each field of data will be identified as part of the National Identity Register, then role-based access will be applied to each field of data, because these databases are in use by a variety of staff. In theory, a person will only be able to access data appropriate to them. However, we're talking a dramatically more complex system than setting up a new database, leading to many more possible routes to failure. For example, there is the possibility of misfiling or tag mis-selection leading to inappropriate access."

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