Britain Moves Toward Mandatory ID Cards

The British government said Tuesday it wants to introduce compulsory identity cards to protect against illegal immigration, welfare fraud and terrorism — though implementation is years away.

Home Secretary David Blunkett (search) said the government would introduce the scheme after building a national database of biometric information using fingerprints, iris scans and facial recognition technology.

"An ID card scheme will help tackle the crime and serious issues facing the U.K., particularly illegal working, immigration abuse, ID fraud, terrorism and organized crime," Blunkett said.

"Using multiple identities is one of the most common practices of those involved in terrorist activity," the Home Office (search) said.

But the issue of identity cards has split Prime Minister Tony Blair's government, with some ministers reportedly claiming that they are too expensive and threaten civil liberties.

Britain has not had compulsory identity cards for ordinary citizens since shortly after World War II. Such ID cards are mandatory in several Western European countries, including Belgium and Germany.

Blair has endorsed the idea in principle, but his office last week said it would take years to resolve the many complex issues surrounding the scheme.

The Home Office said Blunkett's statement Tuesday signaled that the government was committed to the scheme, whereas previously it had only regarded it as a "good idea." Blunkett did not announce any new legislation, but said he expected 80 percent of the population to have the cards within about 10 years.

Britain is already working on upgrading passports to include chips containing biometric data (search), and the UK Passport Service will soon begin a six-month biometric pilot to test face, iris and fingerprint capture and recognition technology, the Home Office said. It said officials also planned to use biometric technology for driving licenses.

Information from the driving license and passport authorities would be used to compile a national database, the Home Office added.

"The government, through Parliament, would make ID cards compulsory when the technology is seen to be working, take up reaches an appropriate level, and public acceptability of the card enables the implementation of a universal scheme," the department said. "It will not be compulsory to carry a card."

Blunkett said ministers would likely decide in five to six years on a date to make ownership of ID cards fully compulsory and would then ask Parliament to agree.

He added that only basic information will be held on the ID card database — such as a person's name, address, birthday and sex. It will not have details of religion, political beliefs, marital status or health records.