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UK plans to make driving licences biometric

Darling explains not-an-ID-card-link

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The British driving licence is to go biometric "at some stage" but, according to Transport Minister Alastair Darling, it will remain a distinct document from the planned UK identity card. Darling introduced the Road Safety Bill in the House of Commons this week, but said, "given that the same information will be required for both passports and driving licences, it makes sense to co-operate on them, but the two documents will be distinct".

So does that mean the driving licence will be used to foist ID cards on people or not? Probably not, provided the current ID card rollout schedule doesn't slip much more, because ID cards will be out in force long before biometric driving licences. But once biometrics are a requirement for driving licences it will clearly make sense for 'co-operation' to take place. The Department for Transport would, logically, use the ID scheme's biometric enrolment centres, and equally logically, biometrics already gathered for ID cards and passports could simply be added to your driving licence. And if you didn't have an ID card yet but you needed a driving licence, when you went down to the enrolment centre it'd possibly make sense for them to give you an ID card while they were about it. Like passports. But driving licences and ID cards will not be linked, they will be "distinct". Honest. But what Darling really means is that they will be as distinct from ID cards as any other significant Government-controlled document or service - i.e. not in the slightest.

Darling was replying to a question from Tory MP Chris Grayling, who queried the enabling power within the bill to require the surrender of old-style paper licences in favour of photographic ones. This power was in the previous version of the bill, which fell at the general election, but had been removed by the Tories in the Lords, who regarded it as a step on the road to ID cards. Grayling had asked for an assurance that "those two are completely divorced", while Darling had responded that "I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance", then launched into his explanation showing they are not. This separation of brain hemispheres is no doubt helpful in New Labour Ministers.

The Road Safety Bill itself contains a number of identity and technology-related measures, one of the most interesting of the former being a records system for non-UK licence holders, while the latter tend to leverage surveillance and ANPR systems. Publicity for the bill has foregrounded on-the-spot fines for foreign offenders, which together with police powers to clamp and tow vehicles where the driver can't and won't pay, will go down well with the local citizenry. The aspect of this system that hasn't yet made it to the public prints, however, is the creation of a UK database to support the measures and to hold records of any associated endorsements.

The Department for Transport's problem here is the usual one. In theory the EU is working towards passing penalties and driver information between countries, and having home police forces enforce fines, but in practice progress is glacially slow, and speeding tickets for foreign registered vehicles vanish into the ether. One of the powers contained in the Road Safety Bill, incidentally, will allow the UK "to share driver and vehicle data with foreign countries", i.e. the no hiding place data exchange system ACPO publicised recently can't have any UK data in it yet. The bill gets round the reverse of this problem (i.e. that the UK doesn't have access to non-UK records yet) by introducing the "driving record", which is a record on non-UK offenders held by the DfT and intended to contain details of endorsements.

Initially, foreign truckers are likely to bear the brunt of this, but further down the line the bill allows for the driving record system to be applied to all those not holding a UK licence. Endorsements accrued presumably will only be transferable to the driver's actual licence where mutual recognition and exchange of penalties has been negotiated. The record system itself, however, looks a non-trivial exercise that will likely become a white elephant when Europe's police computers really can talk to one another. The names it contains frequently won't match up with the home country's record system, and it'll be vulnerable to false ID. It can conceivably be policed when it comes to truckers, who'll often be regularly in the UK, but it'll be much harder to keep track of private motorists.

Foreign drivers will still be able to ignore cameras with a certain amount of impunity, as cameras can't spot fine you if they can't figure out who you are, where you live, and how to get your money just from a number plate. That however is not the case for UK drivers. The bill makes it an offence to have an uninsured car (previously it was only an offence to drive it on a public highway), which means it will be possible to fine owners of uninsured cars purely from ANPR records. Darling appears to be under the impression that the police can already tell whether or not a vehicle is taxed and insured; this however is not quite the case yet, as neither the data from the DVLA nor the insurance database is completely up to snuff. It will, however, get better/worse (depends on your point of view), as the linkage between surveillance systems and police and DfT records gets better, and as the systems themselves are extended (see earlier story).

The construction of a nationwide network of fixed ANPR cameras together with the increasing numbers of vehicle-related offences subject to spot fines and endorsements will, we can confidently predict, lead to more widespread use of counter measures. One Register informant, who claims to have worked on the London Congestion Charge scheme, suggests that the infra-red blocker titanium dioxide, present in sun screens and specialist paints, could be used to interfere with ANPR cameras using the infra-red spectrum without the registration plate appearing to the naked eye to be doctored. He tells us that at the C-Charge's live date some 10 per cent of plates in London were thought to be false or cloned, while the maximum accuracy of the DVLA database at that time was 79 per cent.

And should we mention that speed camera detection equipment is to be outlawed via the bill? But systems mapping the locations of cameras are specifically excluded, so the smart money presumably goes on companies building GPS systems that alert you when you're coming up to a camera. On the downside, once the underlying systems are good enough and ANPR pervasive enough, they can just time you between ANPR snaps and fine you anyway. That however could be a while - the bill "will also require vehicle mileages to be reported to the DVLA, possibly at the time of the MoT", Darling tells us, inadvertently revealing how good at databases the DfT is. The DVLA has, as you're no doubt aware, just about completed its mission to computerise MoT centres - that's where the record of whether or not your car has an MoT comes from. And on that MoT certificate is written...Yes, the vehicle's mileage. D'oh. ®

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