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The British government is still trying to work out how it will implement the ID scheme, six months after it was approved by Parliament.

Bear with us, parliamentary under secretary of state and MP Joan Ryan said today to an industry audience, which has been snapping at any scrap of information that would suggest where they'll find the pork.

Bear in mind also, she told the Biometrics 2006 conference, that the identity scheme got off to a bad start, with its protracted debate in Parliament.

"In the coming weeks, all will become clear. We've done a huge amount of work in the last six months," she said.

"We're three quarters of the way through coming to you with an action plan type approach. There's some very important choices, both for the success of the programme, for costs, and for public trust."

She then gave some hints about how her Home Office administration was drawing up the plans.

"What is clear is that the technical challenges of the storage and matching of biometric data are very different from the storage and management of the biographic data," she said.

By which she was referring to the difference between the higgledy-piggledy quality of the biographical data already held about people in government databases, and the potential for a clean start with a biometric database.

The national identity register could very well be a virtual conglomeration of these separate sources, she said. That would get around the daunting prospect of cleaning existing databases. The difficulty the police have had cleaning their databases over the last 10 years illustrates that point well.

The implication of this is that the government accepts they will not have the entire population on the identity register. So they have to sell the idea so the scheme has a chance of surviving politically – it did, after all, have a difficult birth.

First off, the government is distancing this IT project from other recent embarrassments.

"The government has learnt lessons from other programmes where technical details have been set in stone too early," Ryan said, for which you can make the obvious reference to the National Programme for IT, the bumbling NHS behemoth, and systems like that of the child support agency, which were planned more by political desperation than practical need.

Indeed, the incremental ID plan will involve putting off decisions about what and how it will be done until later.

This, Ryan said, would "ensure the people's trust in our ability to deliver the scheme efficiently, securely and cost-effectively", she said.

But that kind of positioning is only for the techies and pundits. What really matters is how ID cards are sold to the people.

And it is being sold as a convenience card for the consumer generation. The "benefits for the citizen", said Ryan, will include the way it is adopted by the private sector. So it'll be easier to buy a car or take out a loan. She also hinted that it might be used to buy alcohol or shop online.

The Home Office is also assembling a list of public conveniences, sorry, conveniences for the public, in collaboration with other government departments, which will be published as the Identity Management Strategy in due course.

All this makes Ryan's placation that "it will not be compulsory to carry the card", or to produce on demand, an irrelevance. The government doesn't need to make them compulsory.

The other big sell for the government is its role as benevolent protector from the identity demons – those unscrupulous people who would steal and sully your good name.

ID shouldn't cause anyone to worry about their privacy from the government, said Ryan.

On the contrary: "In the modern age, failing to offer the ability for people to link their personal data to secure biometric information would be a dereliction to our duty to protect the public," she said.

This sales pitch might work, because the government has done such a good job in talking up the threat of identity theft.

Though Ryan still has to reassure us about other threats: "The National Identity Register is not a super-database which holds all the information about individuals known to the government," she said. ®

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