Fingerprints and biometric storage
Tory policy leaves most wiggle-room, but will certainly drastically cut back the amount of data stored. According to Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling, the NIR "establishes a level of data collection that goes far beyond anything that has ever been required for passports or that even needs to be required for a system of biometric passports. It remains our intention, as it was when my right hon. Friend was shadow Home Secretary, not to proceed with the national identity register. I see little reason why the rules that apply to the application for a passport should change radically given the current circumstances."
That implies an intent to scale back data collection to the status quo ante data set required for a passport application, with the addition of fingerprints. Grayling goes further than this with: "My view is that we should do the minimum that we have to do. If data are submitted for a passport application, they will probably be retained in the passport database. We do not need to create a gargantuan list of items with biometric data attached. We do not need to store somebody’s national insurance number and biometric data side by side with all the other items... on a national identity database. We need a passport system."
So that's not just a commitment to scrap the NIR, but a broader policy statement on government data-sharing.
But he'll still need to be storing data. Replying to a question from LidDem Home Affairs Spokesman Chris Huhne, Grayling said: "We will certainly cancel the national identity register. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we might be in a position in which, in order to allow people to travel to the United States, we need to process biometric data and to pursue the introduction of biometric passports. We have not backed away from the biometric passport option and, I understand, nor has he. Clearly, data collection will be necessary for biometric passports. However, it is not our intention to proceed with a compulsory national identity register."
Huhne was asking if Grayling intended to "cancel the contracts that are in place to establish the centralised biometric database," and you'll note that the clear implication of Grayling's answer is that no, he quite possibly might not be prepared to do that.
Regrettably, he also seems a little confused about what a biometric passport actually is, and what our international obligations are. As has been pointed out ad nauseam in The Register and elsewhere, our international obligations under ICAO begin and end with the 'biometric' passports we've already got. So when Grayling says "the biometric passport option" he actually means the revision 2 biometric passport with the addition of fingerprint biometrics.
It is helpful that he still thinks it's an option, however, because it is. The EU Schengen countries are now obliged to issue this class of passport (from 28th June 2009), but the UK isn't a Schengen country and doesn't need to join in. The Home Office is currently planning to introduce these passports from October 2010 (clue: because there's nothing the Commission can do to us if we don't start in June 2009), but says that from this date the passport "will have a new design and improved security features including the capacity to hold fingerprint biometrics".
Our emphasis there - a capacity to hold something is not necessarily filled with that something. Even the Home Office has some wiggle-room here, and any of the three main parties could conceivably find itself postponing or abandoning fingerprints in passports.
Grayling also incidentally seems a little off on travelling to the US. Yes, the US requires a biometric passport, and has done for some time. But it's the revision 1 biometric passport without fingerprints (which are also notably absent from US passports), and the Department of Homeland Security collects biometrics from you on entry, and a set of personal data from you prior to this. None of this is anything to do with you, even if you do get to be Home Secretary. Essentially, they just don't trust anybody else's data gathering, no matter how 'secure' it's supposed to be.
But we'll give Grayling seven out of ten. He has at least expressed the intention to collect the minimum of data necessary for a passport application, and unless it was a slip of the tongue, he's retaining the option to back out of collecting fingerprints. He hasn't got properly on top of what a biometric passport is, but that's the case with most MPs.*
*For the record, a standard 'biometric' passport is simply one with a digitally scanned picture in it which is also stored on a chip in the passport. If a picture of your face is a biometric - which it is - your passport has always been biometric. The ICAO definition confuses people, because they reasonably tend to assume that it must be in some way cleverer than that.