A Home Office agency is developing proposals to introduce a photocard passport that could lay the basis of a "smart" national identity card, with encrypted personal data and a digital photograph.
Although Home Secretary Jack Straw told the House of Commons last month that a national identity card would "not be appropriate", the corporate and business plans for the UK Passport Agency make it clear that such a card has not been ruled out.
Listed at number eight in the agency's top-30 business priorities over three years is a target to introduce a "photocard passport" by 2002, subject to ministerial and European Union agreement.
As part of the same task, officials at the Passport Agency have undertaken to "participate as necessary in any work concerning national identity cards".
Further down the list of priorities are targets for ensuring value for money from the agency's IT contract with its passport technology supplier, Siemens Business Services.
Straw announced various plans for the future of the Passport Agency in the Commons in December, including the creation of a new passport office and an expansion of the office in Peterborough. But Straw made no mention of a photocard passport.
Confirming the proposal, a Home Office statement prepared for Computer Weekly says: "The photocard passport would be a condensed form of the current passport. It would be additional to and would not replace the current passport."
The statement says, "Research is in its early stages, at the moment we are simply exploring the feasibility of its introduction."
But the business plan says that, subject to approvals, the target is to introduce the photocard passport over the "period of this plan" which expires in 2002.
A photocard passport is, in technology terms, not difficult to produce, being a cut-down, pocket-sized version of the digitally encoded page that is already in the latest versions of passports produced in part by Siemens Business Services.
As thousands of passport applications and photographs are already being scanned and stored electronically, the data and images could be retrieved from databases and reproduced in the form of a photocard passport. Being embedded into the card, rather than superimposed on page, the data and digital photographs would be resistant to tampering.
The Home Office denies that the photocard passport will be an identity card. This would need legislation, it says. Officials, however, declined to comment on whether they had ruled out legislative change.
The UK Passport Agency Corporate and Business Plans 1999-2002 envisages the need to obtain various forms of agreement and approvals for the photocard passport.
Straw is known to disapprove of a compulsory national identity card. But officials also declined to comment on whether they were leaving the door open for a voluntary identity card, or perhaps a compulsory one if Straw is replaced by a minister more disposed to the idea.
Supporters of a national identify card say it is an inevitable step in the electronic revolution. It could contain data from a variety of government databases, and facilitate access to services and benefits.
But civil liberties campaigners argue that for every 1,000 database cross-references made there is an average of 50 errors, giving those who access the card's data an incorrect impression of the card-holder.