LONDON – The British government began its identity card program for foreign nationals Tuesday — six years after heated debate over whether the costly plan is an effective tool against terrorism, identity theft and welfare fraud.
The last time Britain had ID cards was at the end of World War II.
The program will start with roughly 50,000 foreign students and spouses of permanent residents who will receive cards if they qualify for visa extensions.
Other foreign nationals living and working in Britain will not be immediately affected, but they will eventually need cards as the program is expanded. Officials have not provided details about the national plan, although airport workers are expected to need cards next year out of security concerns.
Government officials say the cards, expected to be used by about 90 percent of Britain's foreign nationals within seven years, should provide a tamperproof way to determine a person's true identity and whether they are eligible to work in Britain. They say they will be more accurate and harder to forge than passports.
"This will give employers a safe and secure way of checking a migrant's right to work and study in the UK," said Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who estimates the cost of the program at $7.8 billion.
The plan has drawn fire from opposition lawmakers who say it will be costly and unproductive and from privacy advocates who complain that the British government is compiling an unprecedented database on British residents.
"This is a huge infringement of our privacy," said Mairi Clare Rogers, a spokeswoman for the Liberty group. "As they extend it to more and more people, we will keep repeating our objections. But the government seems to be plowing ahead, even though the timetable has slowed down a bit."
She said there is no evidence the cards will be a useful tool against terrorists.
Chris Huhne, a spokesman for the opposition Liberal Democrats, said the "hugely expensive" plan would have no impact on crime, terrorism, or illegal immigration. He called it an unneeded intrusion on British liberties.
The opposition to the concept has forced the government to slow implementation of the program and scale back some of its more ambitious aspects.
The cards will contain a computer chip with fingerprint information and other data, including date of birth and nationality, but will not contain religious or ethnic data.
They will cost $45.
National ID cards are widely used for identification purposes in many European countries, although they are not used in the Nordic countries. Many people are able to cross Europe's inner borders without passports, if they have valid national ID cards.
There have been few problems associated with card use, although there were protests in Greece after European Union officials forced Greeks to drop the religious classification that was part of the ID card system.
The situation is very different from that in Latin America, where people have become accustomed to carrying identification papers with them and are less worried about privacy issues.
Brazil's card includes a photo, fingerprint, bar-code, both parents' full names, nationality, country of birth and date of birth.
These cards are necessary to for almost any economic transaction — Brazil's stores ask for it when consumers make purchases, even when they pay cash.
In Argentina, police can hassle anyone who hasn't kept their National Identity Document in perfect condition in their billfolds or purses.
Britain's two prior experiences with national cards have not ended well.
Cards were used in World War I in large part to establish the number of young men available for military service, but they were not well liked and were dropped in 1918, said Jon Agar, a science and technology professor at University College London.
They were reintroduced in World War II and kept in place until 1952, when a court challenge spurred harsh judicial criticism of the use of the cards in peacetime.
That led Prime Minister Winston Churchill's government to scrap the system.
The court challenge stemmed from a routine traffic stop in which a policeman asked the motorist to produce his ID card, Agar said.
"That was not the intent of the card," he said. "It was originally for national security and food rationing, not for police using it as a routine form of identification."
He predicted Britons will generally accept the new cards until their use becomes compulsory for everyone. That will spur resentment, he said.
The current push for reintroducing the system developed in the nervous months after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington when British officials decided they needed a better way to monitor people coming into Britain.
Opponents' argument that the government cannot be trusted with sensitive personal information was buttressed by several recent instances when the government misplaced computers disks — or actual laptops — containing data on British citizens.
Last November, two non-encrypted computer disks containing the addresses and bank account numbers of 25 million Britons was placed in the government's internal mail system but never delivered, leaving officials unsure about its whereabouts.