National Identity Cards on Trial in the U.K.

Trials of a national identity card system in the United Kingdom are producing some mixed results as well as some protests from privacy advocates, but will likely get more testing as well as continued support from government officials, according to industry analysts.

The British government intends to introduce a national compulsory ID cards scheme using unique biometric identifiers linked to a new, and massive, national database. The proposed legislation, which has drawn protests from civil liberties groups, sets out the legal framework for the scheme, which would be introduced incrementally, according to the government.

The government is proposing the national identity card to help stem a tide of illegal immigration, illegal use of public services, and identity theft, according to Gregg Kreizman, research director, public sector for Gartner Group.

Whether the adoption of a national identity card in the U.K. would have any implications in the U.S. still remains to be seen. However, before any such plan is adopted anywhere, the underlying technology will need to improve, Kreizman says. The government would also need to overcome protests about privacy concerns.

The card as currently proposed would attempt to identify the holder first by facial recognition, with fingerprint or iris identification as a backup measure.

"One issue is the speed in which the search can be done. In the small test, the system speed is performing fine," Kreizman says. However, the initial tests used only 10,000 volunteers, far smaller than 60-plus million population of the United Kingdom, let alone the 291-plus million population of the U.S. The larger the database, the longer the search would take—presenting a monumental challenge for search, categorization, and content management technologies.

Another issue is the biometric identifiers themselves. The initial tests encountered problems with volunteers who had missing fingers or severely worn fingerprints, Kreizman said. Iris scanning was hampered when a test subject had long eyelashes or watery eyes.

However, Tim Gower, a London-based senior analyst for Datamonitor, says that any technological challenges are relatively simple compared to the political and consumer issues. John Blossom, president of Shore Communications, Inc. agrees that privacy will be the overriding issue for many.

Leading politicians, lawyers, regulators, security experts, and civil libertarians were vocal in condemning the government's proposals in protests in the spring. The president of the U.K. Law Society, representing 116,000 solicitors throughout the U.K., also warned that the government's draft legislation contained dangerous provisions. Blossom expects the British government to attempt to float the legislation, but to withdraw it at the signs of too much protest. Kreizman agrees, saying that Parliament could kill the legislation at any time.

However, Blossom doesn't expect the government to kill the idea completely, thinking that either the initial proposal or some variation will arise from time to time. Kreizman believes that if the idea is approved, it could be several years before a plan of this scale could actually roll out, rather than the two years that the British government originally envisioned.

And even if national identity cards take hold in the U.K., Blossom points out that terrorism has been an issue longer there far longer than it has in the U.S. and reinforces the likelihood that privacy concerns would present an enormous hurdle for such an effort here. He also suggests that even some of the recently adopted American security provisions, like the U.S. Patriot Act, may not stand the test of time.