Denial over ID cards

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The Independent Online
New smart cards with "digital signatures", developed to help self- employed people cut down on form-filling, might be extended to perform more complex functions including paying tax, and ultimately acting as ID cards.

After being launched earlier this month by David Clark, the Cabinet Office minister, the smart cards, which contain their own microchip, are also being tested to see whether they could be used for a far wider set of tasks.

But the Government yesterday denied that the cards represented the introduction by the back door of ID cards. "The Government is not developing an ID card," said a Downing Street spokesman. "No decision has been made on whether ID cards will be introduced. The benefits and disadvantages need to be considered carefully."

Civil liberties groups have been increasingly concerned that cards containing more personal information, including the new driving licences with a passport- sized photo, could become a de facto ID card. But a "smart ID card" would be significant because it might mean that a person could be tracked electronically as their card was used. The idea of a card with a "digital signature", effectively an uncrackable PIN code, is that it would allow people to pay taxes, claim benefits and apply for passports by filling in an electronic form in a payphone-like kiosk, into which they could plug their card.

The card, which could lead to thousands of redundancies for civil servants, is one of the key proposals expected to be included in the Better Government White Paper next year.

Peter Kilfoyle, the public services minister, stressed that the cards would not be compulsory but admitted it could be difficult to operate in future without one. "If such a card was introduced for government purposes the civil liberties lobby would react very strongly because they would see it as the potential for an ID card. But these are some of the difficult choices that governments are going to have to take," he said.

A spokesman added: "The Government is committed to improving its services to the public and one of the best ways is by using the latest technology."