Until recently, the British government's ambitious plans to introduce biometric identity cards looked dead in the water. After all, previous attempts to launch ID cards, most recently in 2003, collapsed in the face of public and political opposition to a system deemed unnecessarily intrusive and potentially costly. A June 28 survey by polling outfit YouGov showed support for ID cards had fallen to 45%, from 78% two years ago.
But then came the July 7 bombings of London's transportation system, which killed more than 50 people, and a failed similar attack two weeks later. Now the government is banking on a change in public opinion about the biometric cards, which are a central plank of the Labour government's counterterrorism plans. Prime Minister Tony Blair calls the cards an "idea whose time has come."
If Blair gets his way, Britain, which hasn't issued ID cards since Winston Churchill abolished the practice in 1952, will have the most detailed, centralized biometric database in the world by 2008. The new cards would contain personal details such as name, gender, place and date of birth, current and previous addresses, and immigration status, as well as a microchip with a digital photograph, fingerprints, and iris scans. Phased in gradually from 2008 onward, the voluntary ID cards aren't expected to become compulsory before 2013 -- and then only if Parliament agrees.
The government says the cards, which are intended to supplement, not replace, new biometric passports to be phased in beginning next year, are an important weapon in combating everything from identity fraud and illegal immigration to terrorism. After successfully passing a second vote in the House of Commons at the end of June, the identity card bill will go for a final vote when Parliament reconvenes in October. Blair, however, is confident that the bill will make it onto the statute books by June, 2006.
Britain, which took over a six-month presidency of the European Union on July 1, is also trying to convince the rest of Europe to get on board. Britain recently submitted a proposal calling for any EU member country that already uses identity cards to adhere to a common biometric standard and include electronic fingerprints. At the end of last year, the EU already had agreed that member states' passports should contain facial biometrics starting in mid-2006 and fingerprints in 2008, and that visas and residents' permits should also be issued with biometrics.
If the EU agrees to Britain's suggestion, "This will effectively mean that everyone living in the EU will be compulsorily fingerprinted and this biometric, plus identifying personal data, will first be stored on national database and then on an EU-wide database," says Tony Bunyon of Statewatch, a nonprofit group tracking civil rights within the EU. He believes this could create a "society where every movement and every communication is under surveillance."
It's unclear whether Britain has indeed suggested a common database among EU member countries. And certainly, such a suggestion would be the subject of fierce debate. What is clear is that Britain's proposals, for both at home and within the EU, go far beyond the ID card systems already in place in Europe.
Britain's idea of a centralized database that allows for sharing of information among government agencies, which is what it wants at least at home, is unusual in Europe, where many countries with ID cards have strong legal protections in place to prevent this kind of information sharing, according to the anti-ID card lobby NO2ID. The group claims that in Germany the centralization of such records is forbidden for historical reasons, while Belgium uses modern encryption methods and local storage to protect privacy and prevent data-sharing.
It's an ambitious project, but before the British government can set the agenda for Europe it will need to overcome remaining opposition from civil-rights groups and politicians at home. Opponents say the new ID cards will be expensive and invasive. While the government claims the new system will cost $10.7 billion over the next decade, a recent study by a group of academics at the London School of Economics put the cost at roughly double that.
The LSE report also found that no other government in the world had proposed an identity card with such a vast amount of electronic information. Under Labour's plan, the cards would include a record of every address where an individual has lived both in Britain and abroad, and a record of every time the card is used, whether at the border, to claim benefits, or access health-care records.
"The government's goal is to create an audit trail of an individual's movements, a sort of electronic diary for every individual in Britain," says Simon Davies, director of Privacy International, a London-based human-rights group and one of the authors of the LSE report. "The trend emerging within Britain is one of universal and ubiquitous surveillance."
Even British Information Commissioner Richard Thomas, appointed by the government to report to Parliament on privacy issues, calls the ID card database excessive and warns that the country risks "sleepwalking into a surveillance society."
The big worry in Britain is that an extensive amount of personal information will be available on one massive centralized database. "The creation of this detailed data trail of individuals' activities is particularly worrying," says Thomas. "It cannot be viewed in isolation of other initiatives, which serve to build a detailed picture of people's lives, such as CCTV surveillance, automatic number-plate recognition recording vehicle movements for law enforcement and congestion charging, and the proposals to introduce satellite tracking of vehicles for road-use charging."
Opponents also have concerns that biometric aren't foolproof, despite scientific claims. There are people for whom some biometrics won't work -- those who are missing digits or eyes, or who have physical conditions that render one or more biometrics unstable or difficult to read. Factor in potential technical difficulties or operator mistakes, and there's the possibility for serious errors.
"A lot of people say if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear," says Dr. Suzanne Lace, a senior policy officer with Britain's National Consumer Council in London and author of the recently published book The Glass Consumer: Life in a Surveillance Society. But, she adds, "that only holds true in a perfect society where the information is always accurate and only guilty people come under suspicion."
There's no doubt that Labour's plan still has its critics, who worry about potential abuse of the ID card system. But with public fear about terrorism rising in the aftermath of the attacks, the government reckons that Britons will come to see ID cards differently.
Capell is a senior correspondent for BusinessWeek in London
Edited by Patricia O'Connell