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Britain's Identity Crisis

Support for one of the world’s most ambitious identity card systems is gradually ebbing away in the United Kingdom, just as the first high-tech cards are due to be issued. Data leaks, unconvincing government justifications for the plan, and rising implementation costs are undermining public support for the program.

The government insists that despite these problems, it will begin rolling out its National Identity Register later this year. Eventually, it will contain biometric and personal data on every person living in the country.

Officials say the cards will help fight crime and terrorism, combat fraud, control illegal immigration, and improve delivery of public services. Companies would benefit too, officials say, because the database would make preemployment background checks easier, among other benefits.

The United Kingdom has previously only issued national identity documents during wartime but terrorism reduced opposition to ID cards. The government proposed introducing cards in 2003, and support grew following the 2005 London suicide bombings. Parliament passed the Identity Cards Act in 2006.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who is responsible for implementing the plan and selling it to the public, has said that she will roll out the cards in stages, beginning with non-E.U. residents in November. Workers in sensitive industries, such as 200,000 airport employees, would be included next year, followed by students in 2010. The card will be voluntary for most citizens, although U.K. passport applicants will have their personal and biometric data added to the register automatically starting in 2011.

“I have been determined to make sure that the way we put this concept into practice is hard-headed and cost-effective and strikes the right balance for individuals, business, and government in terms of privacy, security, and usability,” Smith said in a speech.

The Home Secretary said the National Identity Register will keep databases that contain personal biographic details “physically and technologically” separate from those that hold biometric fingerprints and photographs. “This will greatly reduce the risk of unauthorized disclosures of information being used to damaging effect,” said Smith.

Despite these assurances, the ID card plan has sparked strong opposition from civil liberty and privacy activists. That opposition stands in sharp contrast to how the British have accepted CCTV cameras across their cities with little debate. There are now over 4 million cameras in public spaces in Britain today.

Frequent data leaks have not helped make the govenment’s case. In November 2007, tax officials lost computer disks containing information on nearly half the population. The data lost included bank account details, national insurance numbers, dates of birth, names and address details of families, as well as the names and birth dates of  children.

A month later, a disk containing the personal information of 3 million driving test candidates was lost. The same month, the Department of Health said it had lost information on about 168,000 patients. In January, the Ministry of Defense admitted that a stolen laptop might contain sensitive details on 600,000 prospective military recruits.

Those breaches have caused resistance to the cards to grow. Opinion polls show that support for ID cards, which ran as high as 63 percent in 2003, has dwindled. Now, a small majority rejects the plan, according to polls held at the end of last year and in March 2008.

The opposition Conservative Party, which usually favors tough national security and law-and-order policies, says it will scrap the plan if it is elected. “The National Identity Register, which will contain dozens of personal details of every adult in this country in one place, will be a severe threat to our security and a real target for criminals, hackers, and terrorists,” said David Davis, a Conservative official. Elections are due before May 2010.

Cost overruns are further undercutting support. In 2003, the government said the identity cards would cost £3.1 billion ($6.2 billion). In March, Smith said: “Current and projected costs of issuing passports and identity cards over the next 10 years [are estimated] at £5.4 billion.” 

Campaigners against the plan recognize there is a need to collect and analyze sensitive personal data. “No one would disagree that, for security and for tackling serious crime, the police and security services should be able to access data under specific circumstances. But that is not the same as giving universal blanket access and to have data being collected and accessed for trivial reasons,” says Phil Booth, national coordinator of an opposition campaign.