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Biometric ID card plan under British review

New home secretary takes close look at national program as opponents claim that it's been rushed on political grounds.

The British government is re-evaluating its ID card project as part of a wider review of the Home Office's activities.

U.K. Home Secretary John Reid launched the review soon after taking up his post in May, following a series of controversies over the country's immigration service.

John Reid John Reid

The Home Office confirmed on Tuesday that the ID card project, which will involve a massive database of personal and biometric data, will be included in this review.

"As part of the Home Office review, we are ensuring that the sequencing of our plans is coherent and addresses the priorities of British citizens, as the Home secretary has identified. We have always made clear that its introduction would be an incremental process. That remains the position," a Home Office representative said Tuesday.

The office's move comes just days after the apparent leaking of internal Home Office e-mails, in which senior staff appeared to warn that the project, currently estimated by the government to cost 5.8 billion pounds ($10.7 billion), could be in serious trouble.

Some reports on Tuesday claimed that the planned launch date of 2008 may have to be pushed back as a result of the review, with Computer Weekly reporting that contracting for the program has been delayed until at least the end of this year.

However, the Home Office denied that the ID card supplier bids were now on ice. "As far as I know, it's going ahead," the Home Office representative said.

Opponents of the ID card plan argue that it will be extremely difficult and expensive to implement, and that the underlying biometric technology is not reliable enough. There are also concerns that the central database of personal and biometric information could be hacked.

The London School of Economics (LSE) warned last year that the total cost of the ID card plan could reach $36.8 billion.

"The delays to the ID card scheme announced today come as no surprise to LSE's Identity Project team: Our 300-page report last year warned the government that its proposals were high-risk," Edgar Whitley, research coordinator for the LSE Identity Project, said Tuesday.

"Given repeated statements from Home Office ministers about detailed (cost breakdowns) and clear plans for the scheme, we are alarmed at the extent of the problems revealed over the past few days," he added.

Following the publication of the leaked e-mails last Sunday, the No2ID pressure group claimed that the program "has been built on deception."

"The government has systematically misled the public, bullied Parliament and anyone who dared to speak against them, and wasted tens of millions already on a scheme that officials now admit is unworkable. Now we discover that the whole thing has been rushed, just to fit Tony Blair's political agenda. The government's much-hailed 'gold standard' of ID is a complete sham," Phil Booth, No2ID's national coordinator, said in a statement.

Graeme Wearden of ZDNet UK reported from London.