ID cards will not be compulsory

The UK government has said that it will not be compulsory to register for an identity card, contrary to previous statements.

“Holding an identity card should be a personal choice for British citizens — just as it is now to obtain a passport,” said Home Secretary Alan Johnson yesterday.

The revelation has drawn criticism from observers who note that the controversial ID card scheme was sold to the public as a tool to combat terrorism. Unless they are compulsory, however, it is difficult to see how ID cards could be used in this context: it would not be possible, for example, to demand to see a suspected terrorist’s ID card if they have no obligation to carry one.

The government’s backtrack has therefore reignited questions about the value of the ID card scheme and the accompanying national identity register. Johnson said that the cards could be used as a proof-of-age documents for the under 21s and or as an alternative to passports.  It is doubtful, however, that a recession-struck country will support the idea of spending an estimated £5 billion on these

Indeed, the future of the ID card scheme looks doubtful. The Conservative party, who are bookies’ favourite to win the next general election, have pledged to scrap it outright.

But there is one potential benefit to the identity register that rarely gets a mention, one that is familiar to enterprise IT departments. Creating a central repository for identities is, in theory at least, a more efficient way to administer multiple processes and services that relate to the same individuals. It could also allow citizens to track the information that various government departments hold on them, satisfying increasing hunger for open government.

However, it now looks unlikely that these benefits will come to bear.

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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