Britain’s home secretary unveiled a bill Monday calling for the introduction of the world’s most technologically advanced national identity cards. Amid fears of international terrorism and controversy over illegal immigration, recent polls have shown that 80 percent of Britons are in favor of the legislation.
But, this is a country that prides itself on its civil liberties, and where the public is not accustomed to carrying any form of identification, not even driver's licenses.
As a result, the plan has raised alarm over its implications for personal privacy as well as over the effectiveness of the costly proposal.
“Those (countries) which don’t have secure biometric identity checks through their passport, visa and ID card system will be known by the terrorists to be the easiest touch,” Home Secretary David Blunkett told BBC radio on Monday.
The issue has gained more attention this week as the European Union prepares to expand its membership to 25 nations as of May 1, a step that increases the vulnerability of its borders as it shifts eastward. The issue of how to manage EU immigration will be addressed by Prime Minister Tony Blair in a speech Tuesday.
In addition to aiding the prevention of terrorist attacks on home soil, and reducing the numbers of immigrants working in the U.K. black market, Blair and Blunkett have claimed the legislation would counter ID and benefits fraud, and illegal trafficking.
'Ahead of the game' with biometrics
Across the English Channel, ID cards have been in use for decades, with citizens of 11 of the 15 EU countries carrying them daily.
Unlike most European countries, the United Kingdom has not used compulsory IDs for over 50 years. Seen as a wartime measure, they were scrapped by Winston Churchill after World War II.
But, the reintroduced cards would go a step further than those issued on the continent.
“We need to be ahead of the game. That’s why we need to be ahead of the rest of the developed world who are now turning to biometrics,” the home secretary said referring to the use of electronic finger prints and scans of the iris or of the full face. The biometric data would be stored in a “national identity register,” yet to be created.
The draft ID cards bill is expected to go to Parliament in the fall, with the proposed plan projected to take up to 10 years to be unrolled step by step.
On Monday, a trial involving 10,000 volunteers began to test the technology.
As passports and driver’s licenses expire they will be replaced with biometric documents. By 2013, the home secretary expects that 80 percent of Britons will hold a biometric passport or license.
At that time, ministers will vote on compulsory registration. If approved, Britons and visitors staying in the country for more than three months would then be required to own, but not carry, biometric ID cards. Similar to legislation covering U.K. driver's licenses, Britons stopped and searched would likely have several days to present their biometric card at a police precinct.
The increased price of passports and licenses, projected to cost £77 and £73 respectively ($136 and $129), would offset the cost of plain identity cards, proposed at £35 ($62).
While 80 percent of the population supports the cards, according to a MORI poll conducted for The Times newspaper last week, almost half of those questioned said they objected to paying the fee.
Civil rights, religious groups voice opposition
In addition to quarrels over the price of an “identity tax,” civil rights, opposition, and religious groups have sounded the alarm.
Rights groups fear that medical and police records, or people’s religions could eventually be included in the government database.
“Even if the amount of information initially collected were to be limited, there is a real possibility that this could be expanded in future,” Mark Littlewood of the civil rights group Liberty told the Home Affairs Committee.
“Furthermore, it is difficult to be confident that such information would be stored in a sensitive and secure manner,” he wrote.
Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten told the television show Today, “I would much rather see the £3 billion that’s going to be incurred in looking at better intelligence.”
Meanwhile, Muslim groups, already feeling unfairly targeted in the war on terror, argue that the vast majority of ID checks would be carried out on ethnic and religious minority groups.
“There is no doubt that the community that will be targeted will be visible Muslims,” said Sadiq Khan, chair of the Muslim Council of Britain’s legal affairs committee.
“We know from the experiences of Algerian and North African communities in France that [disproportionate ID checks] lead to resentment within the community,” he said.
“It’s worth bearing in mind that what happened in the terrible attacks in Madrid and the horrific attacks in America, that Spain already uses ID cards and the men in America had identification too,” Khan said.
“If somebody is going to forge an ID they can do it even in countries where they have ID cards, and there’s no evidence that having ID cards prevents criminal offenses,” he said.
Although the home secretary has touted the superiority of biometric cards over regular cards used elsewhere, he has admitted that they could not have stopped the March 11 train bombings in the Spanish capital.
“It won’t solve the problem (of terrorism)… nor will it necessarily guarantee safety for the future but it will make a contribution,” Blunkett told BBC Radio on Monday.