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The British National Identity Scheme

James Hammerton

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The Identity Card and National Identity Register
Who will need to get an ID card? Will it be compulsory?
How will I get a card? - The application process
The information recorded in the National Identity Register
Who can access the data held in the National Identity Register?
When will my identity be checked?
What obligations will I have under this scheme?
The powers the government will gain over the individual.
Why the National Identity Scheme threatens individual privacy and liberty.
The current status of the National Identity Scheme.
Further information.


The British government are planning to introduce a national identity card which will link into a database, called the National Identity Register (or NIR) recording personal information about every permanent resident in the country. There will also be a unique registration number assigned to each individual enabling their records from different publicly and privately held databases to be easily drawn together and/or shared with other organisations. This scheme is called the National Identity Scheme (NIS), though recently the government have started referring to it as the National Identity Service.

This briefing document provides an overview of the NIS, covering issues such as what information will be stored, who will have access to it, whether the card will be compulsory, and who will be requiring you to present your card.

Note that, over time, it is intended that this document will be updated to cover issues such as how the ID card will threaten personal liberty and privacy and whether the NIS is likely to achieve the government’s stated aims.

The Identity Card and National Identity Register (NIR)

The identity card will be used as your primary means of proving your identity to the government. They also envisage private organisations demanding it as proof of identity and that it will be used for travel within the Europe instead of a passport.

It will store a picture of your face and fingerprints, and will also include a national identity registration number or NIRN. Some of this information will be stored in an RFID chip, allowing it to be read from a distance.

The identity card will be backed up by a database called the National Identity Register (NIR) which will store a considerable amount of information about you, see below.

The NIRN will index your NIR record, but will also end up indexing your records in other government databases and probably many private databases too, enabling all the information stored about you to be easily extracted from these databases by anyone who knows your NIRN and who gains access to those databases.

Who will need to get an ID card? Will it be compulsory?

The following is based on government plans at the time of writing. Note that these plans have slipped and changed several times and may do so again. See the further information section and the current status of the NIS section for details.

Since November 2008, foreign nationals living in Britain have been required to obtain biometric identity cards with their visas. In a change to earlier plans (where only those British citizens applying for a passport for the first time would get a card), with from 2009 onwards, starting with trials in Manchester, British citizens over the age of 16 will be able to apply for a card. Also, airside airport workers will also be required to apply, again starting with trials in Manchester. However BALPA, the trade union for pilots have been vehemently opposed to requiring pilots to do so, threatening legal action.

Assuming Labour wins the next general election, the plan is that, probably in 2010, a bill will go through parliament allowing the Home Secretary to compel permanent residents of Britain, aged 16 or over, to register on the NIR. From 2012, passport applicants will be required to register on the NIR. Those registering on the NIR will be able to choose between getting a passport, ID card or both. If the passport only option is chosen, it will effectively be your ID cards.

Carrying the card will not be compulsory, but note that since the government want you to have to present a card for accessing public services, and envisage private organisations such as banks, insurance companies, airlines, etc to ask for it to prove identity, it will soon become difficult to live without one.

Those visiting Britain for less than 3 months however will not need to register or get a card.

How will I get an ID card? - The application process.

When you apply for an ID card (and/or passport), you’ll be required to attend an interview at one of 69 interview centres. The government will construct a “biographical footprint for you and quiz you about it at the interview. The idea is that if you are the person you claim to be, you should be able to confirm the data contained within the biographical footprint.

The “biographical footprint” will consist of information about you such as your family history, whether you have a driving licence and when you got it, etc. This information will be collected from existing government databases. Press reports, e.g. this and this, indicate it could even include questions on topics such as what bank accounts or other financial services you use, who lives with you in your current household and the background of anyone who countersigns your application. You will also be asked to provide your fingerprints and a photo, which will be stored on the NIR and on the ID card itself. Note however, that the government has proposed that shops, post offices and pharmacies would take your biometric information in a separate process.

This interview process began for first time applicants for passports in May 2007 as a dry-run for the combined passport/ID card applications planned in 2009 and the ID card only applications that will follow. Note that the information stored on the NIR includes any information provided to support the application. Current assurances are that the “biographical footprint” will be deleted after the interview, but the NIR does not yet exist and there’s nothing to prevent this information ending up being recorded in your NIR entry once it is set up.

The information recorded in the National Identity Register

Section 3 and Schedule 1 of the Identity Cards Act 2006 determine what information can be stored on the NIR.

Schedule 1 allows the following information to be stored in the NIR:

  • Your name, and every name you are are have been known by [Clause 1].
  • Your date and place of birth, & where appropriate the date of your death [Clauses 1 & 5].
  • Your gender [Clause 1].
  • Your address [Clause 1].
  • a photograph of your header and shoulders, your signature, fingerprints and “other biometric information” [Clause 2].
  • your nationality, entitlement to remain in the UK and the terms of that entitlement [Clause 3].
  • your National Identity Registration Number [Clause 4].
  • the numbers of any official identity documents issued to you such as passport numbers, driving licence numbers, national insurance numbers, etc [Clause 4].
  • a record of all the changes made to your NIR entry [Clause 5].
  • a record of each occasion you’ve applied for an ID card, for an entry in the NIR to be made, for confirmation of your entry in the NIR and for modifications to your NIR entry [Clause 6].
  • a record of each ID card issued to you and whether it is in force and each occasion you’ve been required to surrender your card or had one canceled [Clause 6].
  • details of everyone who has countersigned an application by you for an ID card or other “designated document” (e.g. a passport)[Clause 6].
  • the information provided in connection with your application(s) for an ID card/NIR entry and the information provided each time you apply for modification of your NIR entry and each time you confirm data in your entry in the NIR [Clause 7].
  • details of the steps taken to verify you are who you say you are, plus any information you provide, on each occasion you’ve applied for an ID card, entry on the NIR, confirmation of entry and modifications to your entry [Clause 7].
  • details of every occasion in which you’ve notified the government of changes in circumstances affecting your NIR entry [Clause 7].
  • security information such as your PIN number for your NIR entry, your password for it and any security questions/answers used to verify you are who you say you are when you apply for modifications to your NIR entry [Clause 8].
  • details of every occasion on which information in your NIR entry is provided to other people [Clause 9].

Section 3 of the Identity Cards Act 2006 also allows the Home Secretary to amend schedule 1 via an order requiring a vote in each of the Houses of Parliament, so this list can and probably will be changed.

Who can access information on the National Identity Register?

Note: an earlier version of this document confused the rules governing who can be provided data with your consent with the rules governing your access to your own NIR data, and asserted you have no access to the record of who has accessed your NIR entry. This is not the case.

The following people can be provided with information from your entry in the NIR:

  • You can demand to see data from your own NIR entry, and this access is mediated by the Data Protection Act 1998. Generally speaking this means you can get access, but the government may withhold information in certain circumstances, e.g. to prevent people from finding out that the security services (MI5, MI6, etc) have been accessing their records.
  • With your consent, anyone can be provided with information from your NIR entry, but they can only get access to a subset of the data held, e.g. they cannot get the information about who has been provided with data from your NIR entry, even with your consent. Note that the subset of data you can access this way can be modified by the government, via an order to be approved by both Houses of Parliament (Section 12 of the Identity Cards Act 2006).
  • With the government’s authorisation, those providing public services may obtain information from your NIR entry for the purposes of verifying your identity/any information you’ve provided for the purposes of such verification (Section 15). This is how your identity may be checked when trying to access public services. Once the government has rolled out the identity cards scheme it merely needs to enable these powers for each public service.
  • The Security Service (aka MI5), Secret Intelligence Service (aka MI6), GCHQ and the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) can be provided with information about you from the NIR without your consent for the purpose of carrying out their functions (Section 17), if the Secretary of State is satisfied it is not reasonably practical for the agencies to obtain the information by other means (Section 21).
  • The police and Revenue and Customs can be provided with info from your NIR entry without your consent, (except for the record of each occasion on which information has been provided to others), for the purposes of national security, preventing or detecting crime and any purposes otherwise specified by the Secretary of State, if the Secretary is satisfied it is not reasonably practical to obtain the information by other means (Sections 17 and 21 again).
  • Government departments can also be provided with your NIR information without your consent (except the record of each occasion on which information has been provided to others) for the purpose of carrying out their functions, and again the Secretary of State must be satisfied it is not reasonably practical to obtain the information by other means (Sections 17 and 21 again).

When will my identity be checked?

In a document from an old website dedicated to ID cards, the government envisaged that the following organisations will use their identity verification service, and therefore your identity will be checked when doing business with them:

…Here is just a sample of the types of organisations and businesses we expect to use the scheme in order to check the identity of their customers:

  • banks and building societies
  • Royal Mail and other delivery and courier services
  • libraries and video/DVD rental companies
  • mobile and fixed line phone companies and service providers
  • travel agencies and airlines
  • universities and colleges of higher education
  • retailers of all kinds, including internet-based companies
  • property rental companies
  • vehicle rental companies.

Many more companies and organisations will use the scheme to check the immigration status of potential employees and to ensure those applying for positions of trust are who they say they are.

On their current website for ID cards, the government makes it clear they envisage the ID cards, NIR and verification services being used to access public services, to check workers’ immigration status and as the prime means to verifiy people’s identity.

Clearly, if the government has its way, the card will become essential for every day life.

What obligations will I have under the scheme?

Anyone who registers on the national identity register, and is issued with a card will have the following obligations:

  • They will be obliged to notify the Secretary of State of any changes of circumstances affecting the information recorded in the register and of any errors of which they become aware (Section 10). Failure to do so will incur a fine of up to £1000. E.g. if you change your name, address you must notify the government on pain of a potential £1000 fine.

    Note that if you notify the government of a change of circumstances, they may require you to attend for interview, give fingerprints or provide any other information requested in order to verify the changes to be made to the register or other to verify the accuracy and completeness of the entry.

The government eventually wishes to make it compulsory for every permanent resident of Britain to register and get a card.

The powers the government will gain over the individual.

Under the Identity Cards Act 2006, the government has the following legal powers against the individual:

  • The power to require the individual to hand over information for the purpose of verifying a national identity register entry (Section 9) or to verify information provided in a passport application (Section 38). This power is currently limited to civil servants but the Secretary of State can issue an order, to be approved by Parliament, to add more people to the list.
  • The power to cancel an individual’s card or to require an individual to surrender his card (Section 11). These powers are given to the Secretary of State. He can cancel a card if it appears to him:
    • the card was issued in reliance on inaccurate or incomplete information,
    • the card has been lost, stolen, damaged or tampered with or destroyed,
    • there has been a modification in the national identity register entry associated with the card,
    • there has been a change of circumstances requiring modification of information recorded in or on the card, or
    • that it is an ID card of a description the Secretary of State has decided should be re-issued.

    He can require the surrender of a card if it appears to him:

    • that the card does not belong to the person in possession it,
    • that the card has expired, been cancelled or is otherwise invalid,
    • that the card is of a description of cards that the Secretary of State has decided to re-issue, or
    • that the person concerned is in possession of a card in contravention of a travel ban issued under the Football Spectators Act 1989 or the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001.

    Note that because the ID cards will eventually be required for accessing public services, gaining benefits, opening bank accounts, getting credit cards, traveling abroad, etc, cancelling someone’s card or requiring them to surrender it will deprive them of access to all of these things and thus prevent them from leading their lives.

    Note also that section 11(8)(b) also explicitly allows other enactments (i.e. any subsequent legislation) to require surrender of the identity card. For example, the Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill currently going through Parliament contains a provision allowing the Child Maintenance Commission to remove passports and identity cards from fathers who refuse to pay maintenance. I.e. if you’re in dispute with the commission over the amount you should be paying, they could remove your passport and/or your identity card.

The government plans to make the cards compulsory to own, should they win the next election. In the original bill brought before parliament, the government had the power to require people of any description specified by the Secretary of State to register and get an ID card, it is likely this power will be revived to allow the government to gradually compel more and more people to get a card.

Why the National Identity Scheme threatens individual liberty and privacy

I believe that the NIS will become a threat to both individual liberty and privacy, should it become compulsory for British residents to own a card and register on the NIR as the government plans. The reasons for this are as follows:

  • The NIR will record details about who you do business with. This is done via the record of each time your identity is checked against the NIR. This information will be made available to MI5, MI6, GCHQ and the Serious Organised Crime Agency. It is also likely that such sensitive information will also become a prime target for identity thieves who may hack the database or otherwise bribe, trick or intimidate those with authorised access to it to get the information for them.

    At minimum, information about which NHS services you use, what schools you enrolled your kids in, your usage of state benefits or other services, and which financial services you use will be included here.

  • The National Identity Registration Number(NIRN) will most likely be recorded in other databases holding information about you, thus making the NIRN a key into both the NIR and other publicly and privately held databases. This will make it easier for both the government and identity thieves to gather together all the data held about you in one go, and circumvent the data protection laws.

    It will also make it difficult for e.g. people escaping domestic violence, people in the witness protection program or anyone else who is at risk from being tracked down to protect themselves. E.g. the obligation to keep your address up to date or face a £1000 fine may make it difficult for someone escaping domestic violence to escape from their abuser if the latter either has access to the NIR or knows people who can get the information for him based on the NIRN of the victim.

  • Every time your identity is checked, information from the NIR will be sent to the organisation checking the identity. Thus personal information will be being routinely passed between the NIR and officials working for both public and private organisations. This will provide opportunities for such information to be stolen or otherwise passed on to those who have no business knowing it, whether via hacking, corruption, intimidation or tricking of officials. E.g. those doing identity checks might record the information sent to them from the NIR surreptitiously and pass it on to the highest bidder.
  • You will eventually need a card and a NIR entry to do everything from opening a bank account to enrolling with a GP. All the Home Secretary has to do is cancel your card (which he or she has the authority to do at any time) and you won’t be able to make such transactions. The card will effectively be a licence to live, revokable at any time by the Home Secretary. Thus many of the activities you need to do in your daily life will become subject to government veto.
  • The gathering of information and sharing of it across public and private bodies that the NIR enables will entail the government officials being able to get a detailed picture of your life. This is “big brother”. The Stasi would have been proud of such a scheme.

The current status of the National Identity Scheme

The legislation enabling the setting up of the NIR and the issuing of identity cards to those who apply for passports was passed in 2006. The relevant Act of Parliament is the Identity Cards Act 2006.

Replacing an earlier plan from March 6, 2008, as of May 2009 the government’s current plan for implementing the scheme is as follows:

  • Since November 2008, non-EEA foreign nationals have been required to get an identity card.
  • In 2009, members of the public will be able to apply for the card and workers in “sensitive positions”, starting with airport workers, will be required to get a card. In both cases, this will start with trials in Manchester
  • In 2010, primary legislation will be published to enable people to choose whether they get a passport or an identity card when registering on the NIR. Currently, the Identity Cards Act 2006 requires those registering on the NIR from 2010 onwards to get an ID card (Section 6(4)). However, it may also be used as an opportunity to reintroduce the clause giving the Home Secretary the power to compel registration that was dropped during the Identity Cards Act’s progress through Parliament .
  • From 2012, passport applicants will be required to register on the NIR, but can choose whether to get a passport, identity cards or both as they wish.

Further information

email 2006, 9 December

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