Analysis The UK is to go ahead with a biometric-backed system of ID verification this year, whether or not the ID Cards Bill is passed by parliament. The 'Plan B', which is going ahead under the auspices of the Passport Office and which does not require parliamentary approval, was touched on by Home Office Minister Baroness Scotland during the recent House of Lords debate ID cards debate.
She described a new service, "passport validation, a commercial service that will come on stream in 2006," which is an aspect of the Passport Service's Personal Identification Project (PIP). The validation/verification service is referred to briefly in the organisation's 2005-10 business plan, and is itself a sort of prototype for the ID card scheme.
It would be likely to have greater prominence if the ID card itself were to have a final unfortunate accident on its way to the statute book, but it's striking that most of the significant components of the ID card scheme already exist or are being built within the Passport Service, to the extent that one could easily view the Passport Service's planning as representing the key strategy, while the ID card scheme is more about extension, rationalisation and legal tidying up. So maybe not so much Plan B as Plan A.
This represents something of a problem to ID scheme opponents. Because the ID Cards Bill is simply one (albeit wide-ranging and high-profile) implementation of Government policy on national identity management, killing it without also overturning the strategy would at best slow up implementation. And, probably, make it more likely that other components of implementation would be put into place without parliamentary oversight and regulation. Lop off a tentacle, and more will grow for as long as the brain lives.
Baroness Scotland's description of the extent of the Passport Office's identity-related operations emerged as she attempted to persuade peers that much of the structure of the ID cards scheme will exist anyway as a consequence of the introduction of biometric passports, and that it is therefore perfectly feasible (as the Government has been claiming) for ID cards to be introduced for only a small extra cost.
This no doubt makes some sense if you're a Home Office Minister. But if you're not, it possibly makes more sense to see it as the Home Office loading costs and features that are not necessary for biometric passports onto the Passport Office in order to establish an ID scheme. These costs and features are however real, not pretend, and many of them will be incurred even if the ID scheme does die. Some of the substantial slug of identity-related infrastructure we'd still be left with would be owned by the Passport Service, and the Government strategic planning that goes along with the establishment of this infrastructure would tend to extend it into other Government departments and into the commercial sector.
So paradoxically, although it's correct to say that the Government is loading costs into the Passport Service in order to ease the introduction of ID cards, it's also to some extent correct to say that even without the ID cards scheme substantial costs will be incurred because of the approach to biometric passport introduction that has been chosen, and because of the way the Government sees identity.
A brief explanation of PIP illustrates this. The cornerstone of the Personal Identification Project is that it changes the basis of the Passport Service's operations from document-centric to person-centric. In the past the Passport Office has kept track of passports, but the new model keeps track of people. PIP is intended to "provide the UKPS with the capability to verify the identity of passport applicants and holders by accessing commercial databases and those of other government departments, improving fraud detection and prevention by more detailed yet automated/rapid checks into applicants' attributed and biographical information. This provides an infrastructure for identity verification that can be used by other government departments via data presented by a private-sector partner" (UKPS Business plan 2005-10).
So the initial function of PIP is to use information on the 'biographical footprint' of applicants in order to check that their application is genuine. A Births Marriages and Deaths online project is also part of the picture, with the UKPS planning to follow up its co-operation with the Office of National Statistics (to frustrate "Day of the Jackal" passport fraud) with a project to "link the UKPS with ONS electronic records (subject to legislation being passed allowing ONS to provide access) which will enable online checks of births, marriages and deaths."
The commercial "passport validation service" that exists at the moment in pilot form can't go much further than confirming that a passport is genuine, but the biographical data the UKPS is starting to compile from commercial sources, new applicants and the planned personal interviews will provide a much more solid identity verification system. The Government intends that UKPS forms the basis of a new agency to run the identity cards scheme and the National Identity Register, but it can be seen that as far as passports are concerned, the NIR is already under construction.
The step change the Passport Service's operation is undergoing becomes clearer if you look at it this way - in order to issue a passport, the Passport Service clearly has to ask sufficient questions to prove fairly conclusively that the applicant exists. However, in the future the Passport Service proposes to retain the answers to these questions and to build on them, producing a biographical narrative of that individual's continuing existence, OK?