The House of Commons Home Affairs Committee held their first public Oral Evidence session today as part of their scrutiny of the Home Office's ID Card plans.
The proceedings were recorded and are due to be broadcast on the BBC Parliament tv channel on Saturday 13th December 2003 at 18:00.
Given their remit (c.f. the previous weblog entry Home Affairs Committee on ID Cards) the Committee really did not get much in the way of definitive or detailed answers to fundamental questions like "How much will a Compulsory ID Card Scheme actually cost in total, to the nearest billion pounds or so ?"
Stephen Harrison (Head, Identity Card Policy Unit) grasped at the fig leaf of "commercial confidentiality", and even the Chairman John Denham, a former Labour Home Office Minister was not impressed that the published estimates, which vary between 1.3 and 3.1 billion pounds, could not be spelt out in much more detail.
John Denham did not seem to impressed with the assertions from Katherine Courtney (Director Identity Cards Programme) about the Office of Government Commerce Gateway Review process (which does not officially start until January ) with respect to this ID Card project. He noted that these were the same people who signed off on the disasterous and much less ambitious Criminal Records Bureau project.
Katherine Courtney also seemed to utter the words "literally impossible to forge" (which we will check with the transcript), which is a statement that is only ever heard from the Home Office, and not even from the most eager and enthusiastic sales people from the Biometric industry itself.
David Winnick (Labour) asked about wether there would be civil or criminal sanctions against those who choose not to register for the scheme, but again, since further legislation is required sometime in the future, the Civil Servants could pass this off as too far into the future at this stage, although they admitted that they were only expecting a very small minority of people to object to an ID Card on principle, after suitable "education" and "demonstration of the benefits".
There was a statement from Nicola Roche (Director Children, Families, Entitlement cards and Coroners) that even under the Compulsory ID card scheme there is no intention that people should be forced to carry ID cards at all times. However, a bit later on, she did agree that "mobile technology", which might allow the Police etc. to check your Biometric Identifiers against a central database without the need to have an ID Card present at all seems to be what the Home Office is hoping might be feasible.
The question of increased harrassment of racial minorities who did not have an ID Card with them under the first (voluntary) phase of the scheme was asked, but the Civil Servants again hoped that this would not be a problem due to "education and training" of the police etc.
The logistics and practical difficulties of Enrolment and Registration for the ID card were not questioned or answered in any detail. There seems to be some vague hope that the small scale Passport Office trial starting in the New Year (why was this not done during or before the Consultation Document period over 2 years ago ?) would somehow gather all the facts and practical difficulties with the still as yet unchosen Biometric Identifiers.
The claim was made that there would be "10 to 17 million" Enrolment and Registrations a year i.e. the equivalent to at least the entire population of Belgium, 10 million Biometric Identifier registrations a year equates to about 50 per second without fail for every second during the working year. The Civil Servants seem to have forgotten that by using Biometric Identifiers as opposed to traditional Passport ot Driving Licence photos, it will not be possible to achieve the same throughput of ID Card registrations because the Biometric Identifiers will need to use secure specialised equipment at a limited number of locations i.e. you will have to queue and queue and queue.
When asked how many ID Card readers were likely to be required to run the ID Card system, the Civil Servants could give no answer.
What did seem to come through (and we will check the exact wording when the transcript and the BBC TV recording are available) is that, according to Nicola Roche, there will be "rigourous background checks" on all the accompanying paper documentation. This rather implies that you will not be able to get your Biometric Identifiers securely loaded into your Smart Card whilst you are present during the Registration and Enrolment process. This means that there will need to be a secure system for transmitting these from remote locations and loading them into Smart Cards in bulk, a much more tempting and insecure target for criminals and terrorists than what people using existing Biometric Smart Card systems are used to.
Gwyn Prosser (Labour) asked about the current Biometric Asylum and Refugee card, and wether the reports that this was already being forged were true, but the Civil Servants did not know.
The Committee did not ask about wether or not your address would be on the ID Card or on the central database with onerous regular updates and change of address procedures a la Sex Offender Register, or ideally, as we would wish, not on any of these systems at all.
The Committee did not ask about how this ID card system could be used to help with ID verification for online government or commercial services - it cannot !
The Committee did not explore the International Civil Aviation Organisation's Biometric Passport standard, which is deliberatly incompatable with other government or commercial Public Key infrastructures (because the problems of Certificate Revocation and Cross Certification are just too difficult) and the effect that this will have on any combined ID Card/Passport/Driving Licence.
The Committee has a whole lot of work to do, and many more questions to ask, and get detailed answers to, before thay can congratulate themselves on having scrutinised the Home Office ID card plans properly according to their terms of reference.