A new breed of "smart" passports containing detailed personal information would require tight security to be successful, a civil rights group warned today.
The chief executive of the UK Passport Service said Britons could be using passports with information stored on microchips within four years.
Bernard Herdan told the weekly magazine Computing that his plans would fit well with Home Secretary David Blunkett's proposals for a compulsory national identity card, indicating the two projects could be merged to create multi-purpose passports.
But Liberty said the Government would have to ensure the data, such as fingerprints or benefit entitlements, was not misused.
Liberty's Mark Littlewood said he had serious concerns about the Government building up such a detailed data base of personal information on the population.
"The crucial thing is the safeguards they will put in place to ensure this information is kept secure and not abused for any reason," he said.
"The authorities in general have a pretty shoddy record on keeping data secure, so we have concerns about them creating a data base of these proportions.
Liberty also expressed concern over the reasons behind proposals to increase change the way people's personal information is held.
"It's worrying that they also keep chopping and changing the precise reasons for introducing the scheme," said Mr Littlewood.
"Last April, they were saying it was to speed up check-ins at airports, then after September 11 it was to fight terrorism and now it's to help prevent identity fraud."
The "biometric" cards, each with an ultra-slim microchip, could hold digital images of the holder's face, as well scans of the iris of their eye and a full set of fingerprints.
|New biometric passports will |
contain a security chip
Scanning stations could be set up at post offices or other designated centres, Mr Herdan said.
"This is about allowing people to assert their own identity, preventing fraud and stopping identity theft. This is not about Big Brother," he told the magazine.
"This would allow us to link a person's identity to a biometric such as an iris scan, facial recognition or a fingerprint.
"That would be a big step, but many countries are considering it."
The chief executive added that the smart card would supplement the paper version for the foreseeable future because many countries rely on stamps at border control.
Mr Blunkett announced earlier this month that there would be a consultation about so-called "entitlement cards" - his new phrase for a compulsory national ID card - which would carry detail about the State services each holder was entitled to use, such as the NHS, social security and education.
The technology is already being used for asylum seekers, who have been issued with biometric cards since January 31.
Computer chips embedded in the cards carry details of each refugee's family members, nationality, date of birth, the languages they speak and several serial numbers.
The cost of introducing a national ID card is an estimated £1 billion, so the Treasury would be keen to see Mr Blunkett's proposal merged with passports to save spending cash on two identical cards for each member of the population.
Mr Herdan said: "That's the direction we are going in and it chimes with the entitlement card.
"Our advice is that if you want a very secure identity, a database linked to a biometric system is the way to go, but it's up to the Government to decide."
Any cards would be based on probably two of the three types of identification techniques, the magazine reported.
Mr Herdan said he wants the new system introduced by 2006 but the UKPS has not decided if it will phase it in in stages or move straight to the biometric model.
Mr Blunkett wants an ID card to crack down on illegal workers by spotting social security scams, income tax dodgers and illegal immigrant workers.
It would also help cut identity fraud, such as credit card crime.
The Home Secretary is due to publish a consultation paper on entitlement cards in the spring or summer.
There has also been speculation that the entitlement cards could also double as a driving licence, carrying electronic details of endorsements, to replace the current paper system which costs £55 million a year to run.