BBC reveals defects in ID Cards

A File on Four radio programme has shown the UK government's proposed identity card scheme to be badly co-ordinated and lacking in accountability.

A File on Four radio programme has shown the UK government's proposed identity card scheme to be badly co-ordinated and lacking in accountability.

The programme, broadcast on 31 July 2007, included an interview with Computer Weekly's news editor and several experts from the identity-management and IT community. It was apparent from the interviews that civil servants are struggling with the vagueness of the project.

Peter Tomlinson, an IT consultant and specialist in smart card technology, told File on 4 he had attended government meetings where the ID card programme was discussed.

He was puzzled when officials from the Home Office, which was the department in charge of ID cards, did not appear to be present. "The meetings were called by people in the Cabinet Office. There were topics on the agenda that were set by people in the Cabinet Office and we kept on thinking: why are we not seeing people from the Home Office.

"Why are we not seeing technical people from the Home Office, or people involved in technical management? Eventually they began to come along but they never produced anyone who had any technical understanding of large-scale systems. We were just completely puzzled."

File on 4's researcher asked Tomlinson what questions had been asked at the government meetings he had attended.

"Other government departments were asking the basic question: how will we use this system, and never getting an answer. No answer at all. It was my first real introduction to silo government. Individual government departments were completely independent of each other and now they were going to have to start working together. But they just did not start to do it."

One of the government's business justifications for the ID card scheme is that departments will be able to link into the National Identity Register to verify that citizens are who they say they are. But File on 4 found that departments have not assessed the costs of providing systems or software upgrades that integrate with the register.

Neil Fisher, vice-president of identity management at Unisys, was also interviewed for the broadcast. Unisys is one of the companies that hope to join consortia bidding for ID scheme contracts.

Fisher had been talking to the Home Office about other computer projects he was involved in. He believed that work on these projects should have fed into the identity scheme. He, too, criticised a lack of co-ordination. He said it was difficult to find out who was in charge.

"I think there has been a realisation, as they have gone through this, that there are a lot of projects, even within the Home Office, being run by awful lots of different and smaller divisions in perhaps immigration, in law enforcement, in passport, and in ID cards, all of whom have a sort of relationship which was ill-defined.

"So [when I went] into a meeting invariably the wrong person from the wrong department would be there who could not speak for their colleagues in some other silo."

He added that suppliers liked to talk to those who work within a well-organised chain of command. "But it just is not like that. I am not giving away any secrets here. The Home Office is quite a difficult department to run. It is like a herd of cats and it is very difficult to herd cats as you know."

Tomlinson said that as he sat listening to officials discussing the ID project at Cabinet Office meetings, he began to wonder whether it had really been thought through.

"We were asking questions like: how does one government department that is not the Home Office connect up to the identity card system? Where are the specifications for the communications protocols? How does the equipment get to be security certified? There was no work going on any of these technical topics

"If you are going to design a large-scale system like this you first go and look at the volumes of transactions that are going to take place, how often are they going to take place and then we would see roughly how big it was going to be. You cannot specify a system unless you have these figures. There were about four of us who used to go to those meetings and we were all very puzzled. We said that this project is empty. It has no content."

BBC File on 4 - ID cards - "listen again" - July 31 2007 >>

ID cards will give 'false' data - BBC >>

ID cards as risky as NHS IT project >>

ID cards - minister's speech highlights the scheme's vague objectives >>

Gordon Brown under fire over secrecy on ID card costs >>

ID cards - Home Office site >>

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