British Telecom may not bid for ID card contracts because of concern that its involvement would make it seem like a 'Big Brother' company in the eyes of the public. According to This is London, BT has been talking to consultants and public bodies, including Liberty, in order to gauge how close involvement with the ID scheme would be perceived.
The area where BT's skills would be likely to be most appropriate would be in providing the infrastructure that would be used in order to link the network of readers with the national identity register, and hence with multiple other government databases, which would put the company squarely at the Big Brother end of the deal. The Government so far has played down the key role that will be performed by what will, in effect, be a national surveillance network and played up the bits of plastic instead. But as the project progresses the purposes of the network will become more obvious to the public, and the Big Brother aspects will move to the foreground.
BT is currently claiming that it hasn't yet decided whether or not to bid, but any hesitation may not stem entirely from the Big Brother factor. The company is already involved in the the NHS National Programme for IT, and it might view that as enough headaches for the moment. Nor are large UK Government IT contracts viewed by industry with undiluted enthusiasm these days. Bad planning and moving goalposts can make project failure a near certainty, and it's generally the contractor that ends up being blamed. Add the Government's determination to push down prices to this and you might reckon winning a UK Government contract boiled down to very publicly trashing your own reputation while tearing up five pound notes.
In recent sessions in Parliament, ministers have declined to rule out either EDS or Capita, both of whom have figured large in previous IT failures. But if the Government started ruling out companies now, it might find itself in the embarrassing position of not having anybody credible pitching for the contract.
BT itself sponsored a meeting between Intellect members and ministers earlier this year, which according to Nick Kalisperas of Intellect was intended to brief government on what could be done. The government has been leaning heavily on UK industry trade body Intellect for IT expertise, with Intellect itself running a "Concept Viability" service for government IT projects.
One might hope that the viability issue would speedily despatch the ID scheme, but Intellect's submissions in the two consultations on ID cards have stressed its view that the IT industry can "meet the technological challenges laid out by the Government's proposals". The Government no doubt takes this to mean that the IT industry thinks the scheme will work, but actually it's merely saying it thinks the technology can be made to work. We rather doubt that, too... ®
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