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MPs must act on runaway ID project

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The London School of Economics has called for Parliament to intervene in the government's identity card scheme to find out if it is "getting out of control".

In its response to the government's six-monthly report on costs of the ID scheme, which said last week that estimates had risen by nearly £1bn since October 2006, the LSE noted how the reports were supposed to help MPs keep abreast of the scheme, but a lack of information to support the figures made independent assessment of the numbers difficult.

The report therefore suggests that "independent Parliamentary oversight is urgently needed, to re-evaluate the goals and directions of the scheme and, if necessary, directly intervene in the running of the scheme,".

The LSE report questioned the "credibility" of numbers supplied by the Home Office and called for them to be scrutinised independently.

It said the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) might not have considered the cost implications of Cabinet Office guidance of the proposed biometric immigration card, of handling ID "refuseniks", of fraudulent ID holders, and contingencies to a breached security system.

The LSE report noted also how the government's radical cost-cutting redesign of the ID system last December - the Strategic Action Plan - was intended to drastically cut costs by using existing government databases instead of creating a new identity system from scratch, and dropping iris images from the cards.

Why then, it asked, had there been no noticeable fall in the cost estimate? Had the redesign had no effect, or had the government downplayed its original estimates? In either case, how could the present estimates be trusted?

The full cost implications of the Strategic Action Plan had not been scoped out, it claimed. Existing government databases were not designed to deal with a workload of 60 million biometric identity records. There might yet be cost implications of contract changes with existing IT suppliers to those departments.

In addition, the government ought, in the spirit of transparency, to keep Parliament abreast of what the ID scheme would cost other departments. These costs are being removed from the scheme, and the Identity Card Bill placed no requirement on the IPS to report them.

Yet the IPS' cost report last week gave some indication of the charges that other departments might be obliged to pay to link to the scheme. £510m costs had been split away from the ID scheme and shunted onto the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). It did not report how these costs were derived and why they were deemed the FCO's responsibility.

The LSE also questioned the basis of the technology. It asked how reliable the system would be at confirming people's identities, and questioned how reliable it would be at the scene of a crime.

The LSE report is available as a Pdf here.

In other ID news

Colin Langham-Fitt, acting chief constable of Suffolk Constabulary told ZDNet his concerns about the ID card project. He said it would not stop criminals who would pay "whatever it costs" to "subvert" the scheme, while the idea that it would stop terrorists was "fatuous".

"This scheme is convenient for government, but not for citizens," he said and described how non-convicted suspects might become stigmatised by having their details retained on criminal databases.

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