UK pushes kill switch on biometric passports, national ID cards

The U.K.’s new coalition government plans to cancel the national ID card program, calling it part of a “substantial erosion of civil liberties” that took place under the former Labour government.

Following an election last week where no party gained a majority in Parliament, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats allied to form a new government with David Cameron as prime minister.

The parties have also agreed to scrap the National Identity Register, a computer system storing information from biometric passports and ID cards under development by the U.K.’s Identity and Passport Service and Border Agency.

They will also cancel the “next generation of biometric passports” and the Contact Point database, which stores information on minors under 18.

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Labour’s ID card project was the subject of frequent criticism as privacy activists saw the program as overly expensive, fraught with security risks and a violation of personal liberties. Labour contended the program would allow for tighter control over immigration and help fight crime and terrorism.

The program launched in November 2008, with the Border Agency issuing ID cards to foreign nationals who came to the U.K. to work or study. Starting this year, people could voluntarily receive the card. The former government had also planned to issue the ID when people renewed their passport. The new passports would contain biometric information.

Soon the program will be frozen. A spokesman for the Home Office said on Friday more detail on how the programs would proceed would be available within two weeks.

The Home Office’s Identity and Passport Service said on its Web site that “applications can continue to be made for ID cards but we would advise anyone thinking of applying to wait for further announcements.”

“Until Parliament agrees otherwise, identity cards remain valid and as such can still be used as an identity document and for travel within Europe,” the agency said.

One way to cancel the program would be to repeal the Identity Cards Act, passed in 2006, said Michael Parker, press officer for NO2ID, which has campaigned against the program.

Despite an estimated cost in the billions of pounds, no substantial contracts were ever awarded and little infrastructure built, Parker said. However, the government did spend substantial sums on consultants and promoting the plan to gain public support, he said.

“I suppose really we just remain hopeful that the coalition will continue to look not just at identity cards and schemes that back it but the wider tranche of deeply invasive and problematic schemes that the government has brought up in the last 10 years,” Parker said.

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