Great Britain's National ID Card: What Does it Mean for The United States?

Trustworthy preventative technology or political slippery slope?

by / September 8, 2006
Later this month, the United Kingdom's ruling Labour Party will hold its yearly conference, and will take up the issue of national identification cards through the British Identity Act 2006. The ID cards are a link to a National Identity Register (NIR), or national database, and is collectively called "The National Identity Scheme." According to the British Passport and Identity Service Web site, "The National Identity Scheme is an easy-to-use and extremely secure system of personal identification for adults living in the UK. Its cornerstone is the introduction of national ID cards for all UK residents over the age of 16." But the registry and cards have many British people worried about privacy, security and identity theft.

Technology and Security

The cards -- compulsory for British citizens -- will link to the NIR. The registry will include 49 pieces of personal information on every person, with the option to add more required information. Names, addresses, phone numbers, former residences and national insurance and passport numbers will be accompanied by biometric information including fingerprints, facial and iris scans.

The scheme was created, in part, to make it extremely difficult for terrorists to create false IDs. Each card/account will include security information -- such as a personal identification number (PIN), a password and/or personal questions and answers to validate the identity of the card holder and thwart unauthorized attempts to access personal information. Such security measures are not new; most people who have an e-mail address from a Web site (Webmail) such as Hotmail or Yahoo! Mail are familiar with these security protocols.

The primary function of the cards is identification. Each card will have a photo of the owner, so it can be used much as driver's licenses are in the United States. But in addition to use as a picture ID, the cards can be scanned, linking to the accompanying account in the NIR. The Identity Verification Service will allow banks, doctors, Royal Mail (Post Office), video/DVD renters, universities, and retailers of all kinds to verify the identity of the cardholder, as well as have access, in varying degrees, to personal information. The Home Office believes many other organizations will use the service, but any who wish to will have to be accredited.

The Home Office expects the increased security of the scheme will make identity theft much more difficult, especially with the inclusion of biometric data, and will act as a deterrent. But opponents believe that the use of one single card/number used at every ID check, and accessed by millions, will lead to problems similar to the situation the United States is having with Social Security Numbers and identity theft.

Another reason for the scheme, which Prime Minister Tony Blair brought up in an August press conference, is the approximately 430,000 illegal immigrants in Britain. Blair told the press that "if you want to track illegal migration and organized crime... you have got to have identity cards. Any other solution simply will not work." This is why all foreign nationals, including European Union members, who are in the UK for three months or more will also have to apply for an ID card. Then cards will be checked using the Identity Verification Service to verify the work/immigration status of a potential employee.

Totalitarianism Shift

Many have called the implementation of national ID cards a shift toward totalitarianism. With the strict requirement to register residential moves, the audit trail of every card use, and the sheer amount of personal data collected, the Orwellian tone of the scheme becomes ever more noticeable.

The group NO2ID is opposed to the idea of a national registry, believing that the scheme is "based on a fundamentally-flawed security model." Phil Booth, NO2ID National Coordinator, said "NO2ID opposes compulsory registration on the National Identity Register, which obliges the government to issue you with an ID card -- every use of which will be tracked, building an even more detailed picture of your life than the vast amount of personal information you will have been forced to give at registration."

NO2ID calls the technology to be implemented "overcomplicated" and "unproven." Booth explains that "the use of biometrics builds discrimination into the very heart of the system." He said that "government trials show certain ethnic groups, the disabled and the elderly are going to have greater difficulty providing biometrics" and "some may not be able to do so at all." Booth also describes the Home Office's central database as being "outdated, insecure and [will] create a new (and potentially devastating) vulnerability in the national infrastructure."

But Britain's newly appointed Government Chief Information Officer, John Suffolk, was quoted in the British newspaper The Guardian Unlimited, as saying, "Not all information will be shared. This is not about sharing your health record or criminal record. It is about basic data sharing to ensure that services to citizens are seamless."

As part of the National Registry Act, the citizens of Britain will be able to access their accounts, but there is as of yet no way to change errors. While at the same time, the citizens will be held accountable if there is anything wrong in the database. If information is not reported to the Home Office, the citizens risk fines up to 1,000 pounds ($1,900), or face up to 51 weeks in prison. Also, the Home Secretary will be able to change any allegedly erroneous information without notifying the individual.

When asked about the debate over the scheme, Blair commented in a July speech that "a biometric ID card is a short step away. It is, to me at least, almost incredible that the proposal to introduce an identity register in the UK should be so extraordinarily controversial. But it is." Bair also stated that the scheme will be a key point of the Labour Party platform in the next election, and as for the "civil liberties aspect of it ... I don't personally think it matters very much."


Many Americans might think, "Well that is Britain, and we live 'across the pond.'" Britain is America's closets ally, and our nations have walked many of the same paths. We have similar cultures and a connected history. And similar governments. Aside from our national origin as a British colony, our government has many British political ideas in our own, such as the influence of the Magna Carta and the English Bill of Rights on our own Constitution and Bill of Rights. With the marvelous foiling of the recent attempted terror plot, there may be the tendency for people to look at the British way of governing and wonder -- would their way be better for our safety?

Although at this time America does not have a national identification card, there is always the possibility for change. Not so long ago warrantless wiretaps on American citizens were illegal. In 2005, the Real ID Act was passed as Division B of H.R. 1268, which set up specific national standards for state issued IDs, as a means of combating terrorism. After May 11, 2008 "a federal agency may not accept, for any official purpose, a driver's license or identification card issued by a state to any person unless the state is meeting the requirements of this section." Also included in this act is the requirement for states to enter all divers' information, including driving records, into an interstate database, or risk a loss of federal funding.

The direction the Real ID Act moves toward is very similar to the British Identity Act. Some say that standardizing state identification cards is an improvement for Homeland Security, while others call it nothing more than political sidestepping toward a national ID. People in the UK are becoming more and more worried about their privacy, and national and international data sharing, as are Americans. With terrorism, personal security, privacy and technology on the minds of citizens, and the lips of politicians, it is necessary for the leaders of both the UK and the US to allay fears. While they may not be able to displace worries about "Big Brother," they must, at the very least, protect the personal data of the citizens.

Gina M. Scott Writer