Police can't read data on UK's ID cards

The first UK identity cards have already been issued, but no police stations, border-entry points or job centres have readers for the card's biometric chip
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

The first UK ID cards have already been issued — but no UK police officers or border guards have any way of reading the data stored on them.

Currently no police stations, border-entry points or job centres have readers for the card's biometric chip, the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) revealed in response to an FoI (Freedom of Information) request by ZDNet UK's sister site, silicon.com, about the £4.7bn identity cards scheme.

The news comes in spite of the first ID cards being issued to foreign nationals in November last year, with the IPS expecting to issue 50,000 ID cards by April this year.

The cards themselves carry biographical data, as well as facial and fingerprint scans. While some details about the holder as well as their photo is printed on the face of the card, the cardholder's fingerprints can only be accessed by reading the chip.

With no readers in place, police and immigration officers are currently still relying on traditional methods of checking ID cardholders' identity, running a fresh set of prints against existing identity databases.

Identity minister Meg Hillier told silicon.com last week that the chip is a "vital part" of the ID card scheme because the "fingerprint coded into the chip… links you to the card".

The broken nature of that link has already prompted criticism by the government's political rivals. Shadow home secretary Chris Grayling said: "Once again ministers have shown that the ID card project is absolutely farcical. What is the point of spending billions of pounds on cards that can't be read in the UK?"

Cambridge University security expert Richard Clayton told silicon.com: "If this capability is not there then the biometrics are, in short, a waste of time.

"I would have thought that the government would have tried to get the readers rolled out as soon as possible as it is only when you get serious deployments that you start to learn what can go wrong."

No firm timetable has been given for the rollout of chip readers. According to Hillier, it will be up to each police force to decide when it is necessary to invest in the machines while the technology will be rolled out to immigration officers over time.

"We have always said that we would roll out the scheme incrementally. The card will not be as useful as it could be until we have got the volumes out there," Hillier told silicon.com.

"There's no prospect in the immediate future for the government directing anybody that you have to buy those things [readers] because we would be placing a burden on these organisations."

Hillier said the economics of equipment manufacturing will also play their part in determining when readers will be available.

"The manufacturers of the machines have also got to decide whether it is worth their while to produce them," she said.

"I think that organisations will decide in time that it is better, quicker and cheaper to have them."

In response to silicon.com's FoI request, the IPS said readers will become more widely available as the cards are rolled out to the UK population, starting with airport workers and volunteers later this year.

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