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Last Updated: Wednesday, 16 November 2005, 13:12 GMT
Call for ID cards to get smart
By Jane Wakefield
BBC News technology reporter

Naked ID card protesters
Protesters have gone to extremes to say no to ID cards
The idea of a UK identity card has stirred up controversy but it looks increasingly likely to become part of most people's wallets from 2008.

The scheme faces a rocky ride through the Lords before it makes it onto the statute book, and critics are likely to continue arguing that the scheme is unnecessarily intrusive and offers few benefits.

But a new voice is being heard. It is not asking for the scheme to be scrapped but for the ID card to work for citizens in ways that make it useful beyond the government's remit for it.

The government's line that the card will be an effective means of combating terrorism and benefit fraud has failed to excite the majority of the public.

However, some in the technology industry argue that a smart card with a range of functions, including acting as an enabler for e-shopping, might win over sceptics.

Hong Kong experience

Mike Keegan, head of ID at the Post Office, is one of the people who believe that the government needs to look beyond its current security agenda.

Hong Kong skyline
Hong Kong citizens have multi-functional ID cards
"It concerns me that the current thinking of the Home Office is for government functions rather than widening it out," he said.

"It would be a poor show if the billions that will be spent on infrastructure is not thought through properly with other businesses in mind."

"We need to look at how ID is working in other parts of the world, in Hong Kong for instance where there are a host of third party applications on the card."

The issuing of ID cards is already well under way in Hong Kong, with 3.5 million cards already in the hands of citizens and the rest of its seven million inhabitants on target to receive the card by 2007.

A digital certificate provided by the Hong Kong post office can be stored in the card which acts as a digital identifier for electronic services on the web.

There is also room on the card for adding new functions such as e-cash down the line.

Hong Kong citizens can also use their government-issued smart card as a library card and at the immigration check-point at the airport.

Users insert their smart card into the card-reader and press their thumb on the finger-print reader to ensure fast track re-entry into Hong Kong.

Single database

Mr Keegan suggested that potential applications for the UK ID card could include allowing it to double up as a credit card and smart travel card, similar to Transport for London's popular Oyster card. It could also offer the digital certificate function enjoyed by its Hong Kong equivalent.

Charles Clarke using fingerprint reader
Biometric information will be stored in ID card database
The government's ambitions for the card, beyond acting to reduce benefit fraud, terrorism and illegal immigration, seem to focus more on the way it can help provide more joined-up government services.

Many believe that a single database, accessible by a range of government bodies and containing personal and biometric information on every citizen, will be a cornerstone of the scheme.

Such an all-seeing database, where information can readily be shared among government departments, is the prospect that has most worried opponents of the scheme, many of which have united under the anti-ID organisation No2ID.

Others believe offering smart access to a range of government services could be one way of making the scheme appeal to the wider public.

One possible pairing could be for the ID card to be linked to the computerisation of the NHS, acting as a smart medical card.

William Heath, chairman of public service research body Kable, is one of the most outspoken critics of the ID scheme and argues the current way of accessing medical services is the best.

"I would want to keep medical records apart. People should get access to health services via a GP with whom you have a relationship," he said.

Going further, he believes the ID card scheme in its current form could sound the death knell for government services online at a time when they are just beginning to be adopted by people.

"The ID plan is the kiss of death to trust in e-government. The government can spin the cost but it is the tax-payer who is ultimately paying for the scheme and there are no benefits to e-government. It doesn't solve the problems of how to transact with the government."

Citizen and the state

The government has not gone into details of what will be stored on the database or how it will work, saying such decisions cannot be reached until the ID card is on the statute book.

But it has been listening to alternative ways of storing identity from interested parties in the tech industry.

For Dave Birch, director of technology consultancy firm Consult Hyperion and an expert on digital identity, there is no reason why the database and the card cannot be separated.

The database, he argues, should contain as little information as possible, just a biometric identifier and what he calls a MBUN (Meaningless but Unique Number).

While the database will provide the government with what it requires, the card could "provide our side of the deal," acting as a repository for online digital identities among other things.

Another important feature of the Hong Kong card is that it allows the relationship between citizen and state to be a more symbiotic one.

"It allows citizens to identify officials as well as the other way round," said Mr Birch.

One of the major concerns of those opposed to the scheme is that it will subtly alter the relationship between citizen and state so a card that gives something back to the public could offer a small sweetener.

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