Could the people of Manchester cause the end of New Labour as ID cards are finally given the green light?

Opinion by Dan Raywood

This week saw one of New Labour's most controversial policies take a further step to fruition.

This week saw one of New Labour's most controversial policies take a further step to fruition.


Last week at the Infosecurity Europe show, the opening keynote speech by former Home Secretary David Blunkett MP made the headlines when he claimed that there had been a ‘massive drop' in public confidence in ID cards.


Despite the fact that Blunkett was the architect of the National Identity Scheme and claimed that five years ago, most UK residents were in favour of the proposed cards, support has fallen overall.


Speaking to ZDNet UK, one of the few publications able to get into the Sheffield Brightside MP's address, Blunkett said: “For at least three years after we announced [ID cards], 75 or 80 per cent of the population were in favour. Over the last two years, we seem to have had a massive drop in confidence in the system.”


He claimed that a single document combining a compulsory biometric passport with a driving licence would be more popular. BBC News reported that Blunkett said: “Most people already have a passport but they might want something more convenient to carry around than the current passport and may be able to have it as a piece of plastic for an extra cost. People don't worry about the Passport Agency but they do worry about some mythical identity database.”


So it came as some surprise that just eight days later, it was announced that the first city has been selected where its citizens can sign up for an ID card. From this autumn, anyone over 16 with a UK passport from the city of Manchester will be able to apply for a card from the Home Office. Anyone who is interested will be able to register on the Directgov website.


The registration process will likely involve a visit to the Manchester passport office to be interviewed and have their fingerprints and photo taken.


The choice of Manchester is perhaps not hugely surprising. The home of United and City and numerous music scenes is a Labour stronghold region and is a culturally popular centre.


Home Secretary Jacqui Smith claimed that the Manchester launch will mark the beginning of the main phase of the ID scheme; which will culminate in cards being available nationwide by 2012.


She also said that post offices and pharmacies could play an important role in the success of the ID scheme, as they would allow people to give their fingerprints and a face scan while ‘out doing the shopping'.


Despite this claim, it was revealed by BBC news that people in Manchester will only be able to get the cards by applying directly to the National Identity Service. They will not be able to get them from shops and post offices for another two years.


Smith said: “ID cards will deliver real benefits to everyone, including increased protection against criminals, illegal immigrants and terrorists.”


Aside from the political debate caused by the scheme, with Conservative Party leader David Cameron claiming that he would scrap the scheme if elected, and eyebrows raised about the estimated £10-£20 billion that is has already caused, the main concern in the security arena regards the collection and storage of the biometric data.


The first challenge for the Government will be for it to confirm the security of personal data that will need to be collected and retained for the new cards. James Hall, chief executive of the Identity and Passport Service, told BBC News: “I think it is important to recognise that we're not collecting some massive accumulation of information about citizens.”


Meanwhile, Jamie Cowper, director of marketing EMEA at PGP, claimed that the option of post offices, pharmacies and shops will offer convenience but the public will need to be convinced of their security credentials before handing over their personal details for processing.


Cowper said: “Even if these high street outlets can prove they are able to process and record this data in a highly secure manner, there remains serious concern about how all this information will be centrally stored by the Government. Given the numerous public sector data breaches of late, the public is fully justified in expressing unease about these proposals.

“Ultimately if this trial is to be rolled out nationwide it is absolutely essential that the Government quashes these fears, deploying proven technology such as encryption to protect citizen data. This is the only way to keep personal data absolutely safe. Even if sensitive information falls into the wrong hands, as long as it's encrypted it cannot be read by unauthorised parties so will remain secure.”


Back in November SC reported on the concept of the ‘biometric booth', which would be used to collect information and which were planned to be housed in branches of the Post Office. Stewart Hefferman, COO of TSSI Systems, claimed that it was ‘preposterous to put public data into the hands of a third party when data loss is as commonplace as it is'.


A few days later, SC was contacted with a response from the Home Office, where a spokesperson dismissed the speculation about the post office concept, but said that it does intend for biometrics to be collected in a ‘photo kiosk style fingerprinting service' and trained staff will enrol customers rather than a self-service process being used.


There is no doubt that ID cards can offer benefits, a survey by Gemalto found that there has been successful achievements in rolling the scheme out across the world.
Belgians are able to use their e-ID cards to report crimes to the federal police through an electronic terminal connected to the internet, Finnish citizens use the card to enable secure access to e-Banking services and people in Bahrain are able to store biometrics for medical information and access to e-gates at airports and in civil service locations.


Gemalto claimed that it ‘is clear therefore that the UK scheme has the potential to transform a wide range of economic transactions outside as well as within the public sector'.


Although the implementations around the world have worked with a variety of benefits, there is the dilemma of the multiple data breaches that have occurred over the past 18 months, and if one were to happen to the ID card database, how it would affect us all.


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