HMRC crisis puts spotlight on ID cards

Opponents of the government’s £5.6bn ID cards programme have warned that the data loss disaster at HM Revenue and Customs shows the huge amount of biometric and personal information required for the national identity scheme will not be safe.

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Opponents of the government’s £5.6bn ID cards programme have warned that the data loss disaster at HM Revenue and Customs shows the huge amount of biometric and personal information required for the national identity scheme will not be safe.

The government is under fire after HMRC admitted that records of 25 million people – including bank details, addresses and other confidential information – were on computer disks lost in transit to the National Audit Office, the government's financial watchdog. Chancellor Alistair Darling has blamed an unnamed junior official for sending the data out insecurely, in breach of HMRC’s procedures.

In parliament yesterday, opposition MPs said the government must think again about the ID card scheme and its underlying national identity register in the light of the HMRC data disaster.

Shadow chancellor George Osborne asked Darling: “Does he agree that today must mark the final blow to the government’s ambition to create a national ID card? They simply cannot be trusted with people’s personal information.”

And Conservative veteran Peter Lilley added: “This calamitous breach of privacy occurred during the transfer of information between two public departments. Given that the national database behind the identity card system exists precisely to transfer and aggregate information between a great many departments, can the chancellor give us an assurance that we will not proceed with that proposal without first carrying out a proper review of the privacy implications, especially in the light of the fact that the Australian proposal for an identity card foundered precisely on concerns about privacy?”

Darling replied: “The key thing about identity cards is, of course, that they will mean that information is protected by personal biometric information. The problem at present is that, because we do not have that protection, information is much more vulnerable than it should be.”

But the HMRC crisis has prompted wider questioning of the cards programme outside parliament. Phil Booth, co-ordinator of the NO2ID campaign, called for development of the ID card scheme to be stopped immediately.

"This data disaster shows up the madness behind the government’s ID schemes. People had no choice about giving up that information. It makes the government the biggest identity thief of all,” he said. “It’s bad enough that HMRC can’t be trusted with basic financial details. But within five years the Home Office could be leaking or losing people’s complete identity records.”

Before the HMRC crisis broke, the information commissioner, Richard Thomas, had also highlighted risks to data protection rights from the ID card scheme.

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