All UK citizens could be forced to have some form of identity card by 2013, David Blunkett has said.
A compulsory ID card is unlikely for some years
From 2007/8 all new passports and driving licences will include details such as eye recognition and fingerprints, said the home secretary.
Ministers say most people will have one of the voluntary documents by 2013 and then it could be made compulsory.
Mr Blunkett says the scheme is vital for fighting benefit fraud, immigration abuse and terrorism.
New Tory home affairs spokesman David Davis said the timescale for the introduction of the cards was a "10-year deferral" forced by cabinet splits over the issue.
The result was a "half-baked" plan, he said, pointing to the disparity of people not having to carry cards but being stopped by police.
"If you are a law-abiding innocent man, you turn up three or four days later, if you are a criminal or illegal immigrant, you disappear into the undergrowth," he said.
Under the plans people wanting to use the NHS, claim benefits or get a job would have to produce a valid card.
Prime Minister Tony Blair said the public understood the need to contemplate such schemes.
He told reporters: "It is important to realise that we live in a quite different world today. There is a real security threat."
ID cards - key facts
From 2007-2008 new passports and driving licences will include biometric data
By 2013 it is estimated 80% of adults will have biometric passports or driving licences
4.6m foreign nationals living in UK among first to register on database from 2007-2008.
Introduction of separate ID cards from 2007/8
Costs of setting up the system over next three years £186m
The total cost will be £3bn
Mr Blunkett said a National Identity Register would hold details of 60m people in the UK.
While people would not be compelled to carry their ID, Mr Blunkett indicated mobile technology was on the way which could allow police on streets to check people's ID by checking their fingerprints or eye scans.
He said "minimal internal controls and strong borders" were no longer enough.
"An ID card is not a luxury or a whim - it is a necessity," he said.
"I know some people believe there is a sinister motive behind the cards; that
they will be part of a Big Brother state.
"This is wrong - only basic information will be held on the ID card database -
such as your name, address, birthday and sex.
Mr Blunkett thinks cards would cut illegal immigration and benefit fraud
"It will not have details of religion, political beliefs, marital status or
your health records."
Mr Blunkett claimed independent research showed eight out of 10 members of the public backed ID cards.
But his Lib Dem opposite number, Mark Oaten, suggested that 5,000 unfavourable consultation responses had been not been counted as they had been submitted through an anti-ID card website.
The money earmarked for the ID card scheme would be better spent on more police, argued Mr Oaten.
In his interview with Today, Mr Blunkett gave an insight into cabinet divisions over ID cards.
The home secretary likened the opposition he faced from fellow ministers to that experienced by Barbara Castle when she tried to overhaul industrial relations in the 1960s.
She was thwarted by cabinet colleagues but the failure to tackle union power led to Labour losing the 1979 election, he said.
The UK's most senior police officer said at the weekend that although he used to be against the idea of compulsory ID cards, he now believed they were "essential" in the fight against terrorism.
Sir John Stevens, head of the Metropolitan Police Service, said they should be introduced urgently.
Countries with ID cards
But there is opposition from among Labour MPs. As well as civil liberties concerns, former Home Office Minister Barbara Roche said the scheme would cost a lot without necessarily being a valuable weapon against crime.
Mark Littlewood, from campaign group Liberty, said the proposals had been watered down but predicted Mr Blunkett would struggle to get his plans implemented before the next election.
The Privacy International group said the scheme was "mathematically and technologically" impossible to achieve.
For the system to work the biometric information would have to be more than a million times more accurate than currently commercially available, it said.