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The card would hold encrypted personal data and a digitised photograph, using technology similar to that described this week by home secretary David Blunkett for a mandatory biometrics-based identity smartcard for asylum seekers.
Since 11 September, the Government has issued sometimes conflicting statements about plans for national ID cards. Last month Blunkett said that the technology exists for fingerprint or iris data to be encoded on a card to improve security. He did not rule out the possibility of introducing a compulsory card for wider use.
"I'm giving it a fairly high priority in terms of the discussions and consideration behind the scenes," he said.
Later Downing Street indicated that consideration of ID cards had been put on the "slow track" and the media reported that the idea had been ruled out.
However Computer Weekly's research has established that the Home Office appears committed to the introduction of a smartcard which would not replace the passport but would be a condensed version of the current digital passport and could double as a voluntary identity card.
The Home Office has confirmed that a feasibility study on the technical aspects of a smartcard, including its design, security features and ability to store personal encrypted data has been completed successfully, and that it is seeking EU agreement as the card would be adopted as a travel document.
The Home Office refused to comment on the passport card's role as a voluntary identity card, but the Passport Service's corporate and business plan for 1999-2002 lists as number eight in its top-30 priorities the introduction of a photocard passport and participation as necessary in "any work concerning national identity cards".
Last week the Home Office revealed on its Web site that it is considering a national ID card. An inconspicuous update to the site said that an identity card is not planned as part of a response to the US terrorist attacks. "However," it said, "the Government is considering whether a universal card which allowed people to prove their identity easily and provided a simple way to access a range of public services would be beneficial."
Some officials have promoted the idea of a voluntary ID card, arguing that its adoption in practice would become widespread if it became a de facto means of establishing identity for access to public and private sector services.
The latest annual report and accounts of the Passport Service reveals that development of a passport card is under way and will be implemented, subject to EU and ministerial approval, after the roll-out of the Siemens Passport Application Support System (Pass) due to be completed later this month.
By January all applicants for new or replacement UK passports will have their photograph and signature scanned into a digital format, stored on an Oracle database. Passport Service staff say it would not be a major step to embed the image and personal data from the database onto a smart card. Electronic transmission of the photograph, which would be integrated into the card rather than superimposed, would make it more resistant to forgery.
A voluntary photocard passport would increase revenues. As Computer Weekly reported last week the service is already planning to raise charges after a deficit arising in part from the delayed roll-out of Pass.