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August 16, 2007

Uncertainty in UK’s ID card plans

The UK government has started the tender process to allow suppliers to join those that will be registered as potentially available to meet the technological requirements of its identity card program. However, there are significant areas of uncertainty as to what the system will encompass and provide.

By CBR Staff Writer

Known as the National Identity Scheme (NIS) Strategic Supplier Framework, this marks the stage in this long-running program at which, at last, there exists some formal declaration of what the system will encompass and provide. However, the information published in support of the tender process reveals that even the type of biometrics that will be used to underpin the scheme is yet to be decided.

Currently, the expectation is that fingerprints will be used as identifying characteristics, but guidance mentions that NIS might yet require iris ‘prints’ to be recorded as well. Given that the scheme has been under consideration for years already, and that both these biometric technologies are well established, it seems surprising that no decision has been reached on what are deemed to be sufficiently rigorous identity criteria.

Perhaps even more surprising is that the government has stated that it wishes suppliers to be prepared to provide guidance on the way forward. At the very least, this seems to accommodate a potential clash of interests, as suppliers could be motivated to advise a large technology footprint, for the sake of sales rather than benefits.

In any case, there must be a question as to whether iris recognition technology is appropriate over such a large user population. Although it has one of the lowest rates of error of the range of biometric technologies available, it is expensive to deploy equipment to take iris readings. Additionally, many organizations may feel that asking customers, or other people with whom they interact, to undergo iris readings, might be intrusive and may be detrimental to their relationship.

Guidance on the cost of ID cards to consumers is now also available, and is stated as an expected GBP30 (extra to the cost of a passport) for a card valid for 10 years. It is also surprising that outline costs for consumers can be so well defined, given the uncertainty as to whether iris biometrics will be included on cards, and leads to the assumption that the government will bear the cost of any extra investment for iris registration. However, if that part of NIS does go ahead, organizations that are required to undertake iris checking will have to invest in new equipment themselves, and it is unlikely that these costs are being reflected within the totals that the government is currently stating.

A minister from the Home Office (the area of government responsible for the NIS), commenting on the launch of the framework for supplier registration, proudly remarked that this is a groundbreaking project – seemingly unaware that, in many experienced minds, the association between the government and groundbreaking projects throws up images of out-of-control spending, unfulfilled requirements, and a ‘gravy train’ (now with conveniently online ‘ticket booking’).

We remain skeptical of any tangible benefit being realized from NIS, and believe that commercial organizations will find it hard to justify the expense and investment necessary to widen its overall participation. Given that there seems to be an iron political will to create the NIS, the public sector, meanwhile, is likely to be propelled by directive to spend on its involvement, regardless of benefits or costs. In late 2005, the London School of Economics revised its estimate of the total cost of all activities in the UK public sector attributable to ID cards, stating that up to GBP30 billion could be spent. It is all too easy to see how such a horrific prospect could come to pass.

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Source: OpinionWire by Butler Group (

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