As the private sector around the world adopts ID cards for various uses, will voluntary demand for such schemes ever happen in the UK?
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith announced earlier this year several changes to the identity card scheme in the UK. This now means that cards will no longer be compulsory, with new passport applicants having the option to request a card. It is worth noting that, should Labour win the next election, then the scheme is likely to go to a vote for MPs to make it compulsory again. Such a move is likely to be dependent upon the success of the voluntary scheme.
The chances of the UK having a compulsory ID card scheme will depend on whether there is a demand. This is dependent on the benefits being realised and adopted by the private sector.
A card with the sole purpose of proving identity to law enforcement is unlikely to create a rush of new applicants. This was demonstrated when the National Registration Act in 1952 was repealed and compulsory ID cards were scrapped.
Many countries around the world have adopted both compulsory and non-compulsory identity documents for citizens. In many cases private sector have embraced such cards, where citizens use them as part of their everyday life. In Greece, for example, it has been adopted by the financial sector to open new accounts, or to even perform simple banking transactions. It is also used to receive parcels and registered mail. With fraud against private individuals in 2005 estimated at £2.75bn, demanding that identity thieves prove identity to receive illicit goods as opposed a signature can only be a good thing.
The retail industry is even using the cards. A blogger from Singapore commented that his card is "shown to the occasional waiter or cashier, so they can be sure that my credit card is not stolen". ID cards are used to verify customers in many countries, from registering for a mobile phone in South Africa to renting an apartment in Taiwan. In many locations the ID card is also used as valid travel documentation. For example, in Croatia citizens can travel without a passport to countries that have special agreements with the Croatian government.
Certainly, having an ID card can be beneficial to citizens. However, by solely focusing on its ability to fight terrorism it is unlikely to create a demand in its own right. The Conservative party questioned its effectiveness in this fight by citing the events in Spain as an example.
However judging by the number of abusive comments to the Singapore blogger, it seems that getting voluntary demand may be easier said than done. Perhaps the cards should be used to give people money off their shopping. After all, store 'loyalty' cards not only store personal details but also track customer purchases, and the demand for such cards is huge because they offer money off at the tills!
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The Indian government plans to give all of its 1.2 billion citizens biometric ID cards, and Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani will lead the project.