Home Secretary David Blunkett claimed today that a national ID card scheme using biometric technology would tackle identity theft, which costs the UK more than £1bn a year.
Blunkett, announcing draft legislation to phase in identity cards for 80% of the population by 2013, claimed that biometric technology would have a significant impact on organised crime, including terrorism, drug trafficking, money laundering and illegal immigration.
"Multiple or false identities are used in more than a third of terrorist related activity and in organised crime and money laundering. It is crucial that we are able to robustly to ascertain and verify our own and others’ identities," he said.
The viability of ID cards has split the government, with a number of cabinet ministers voicing reservations, but the Home Office points to what it claims is widespread popular support for the idea among the public.
"There has been a growing recognition that rather than threatening our vital freedoms, ID cards would actually preserve them, " he said.
Blunkett was speaking as the Home Office unveiled details of a trial of the iris and fingerprint biometric technology, first reported in Computer Weekly in February, with 10,000 public volunteers.
The trial will begin in London, with Leicester, Newcastle and Glasgow expected to go live shortly. A mobile unit will visit other locations.
The draft bill sets out the legislative framework to build the scheme, including a national identity register containing personal details, including biometric signatures of the population.
The design of the cards has yet to be finalised, but is likely to feature basic details such as name, age, a digital photograph, a unique personal number and details of whether the card holder has a right to work in the UK.
The cards will contain biometric details, such as an iris scan, or a fingerprint data on an encrypted chip.
The government plans to phase the cards in by replacing passports and driving licences with biometric devices. Most cards will be in the form of passports, which will rise to £73 to pay for the scheme.
The Home Office plans to support the card system by introducing new criminal offences to criminalise the possession of false identity documents.
The Computer Misuse Act will also be extended to make it an offence to tamper with contents of the National Identity Register, punishable by up to 10 years.
The government has answered critics concerns over the viability of such a complex IT project, the largest undertaken by government so far, by promising five appraisal reviews. They will be in addition to the Office of Government Commerce Gateway review.
Blunkett said the government will introduce important privacy safeguards, limiting the disclosure of sensitive personal information from the ID card system unless it is needed for national security reasons or to prevent or investigate crime. There will be independent oversight of these disclosures.