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12/21/2010
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Britain Scraps Biometric National ID Cards

The identity register, billed as a way to increase security, was criticized for collecting too much information on United Kingdom citizens.

Britain is scrapping its controversial national identification card. On Tuesday, the government expected the queen to approve a bill that abolishes national ID cards for British nationals. At that point, the country's so-called national identity register would also begin to be destroyed.

In an editorial in the Guardian, the United Kingdom's minister for immigration, Damian Green, said that continuing to pursue the ID cards "would have been a distraction from the real work that needs to be done in countering terrorism, illegal immigration, or benefit fraud."

Provided the bill becomes law, "photographs, fingerprints, and personal information that were submitted as part of the application process for an ID card will be destroyed within two months," he said. The ID cards would become invalid for travel and identity verification purposes within one month.

Before coming to power earlier this year, David Cameron, the U.K.'s current prime minister, regularly criticized the previous administration for retaining too much information on citizens and fostering a "database state." He promised to eliminate national ID cards as part of a wide-ranging "freedom bill."

National ID cards, introduced as an anti-terrorism measure under the previous Labor government, have long appeared to be a technology in search of a purpose. Suggested in the wake of Sept. 11, a draft bill to introduce the cards appeared in 2004, before they became law in 2006. At various points, the government promised the ID cards, containing biometric data, would help prevent everything from terrorism and identify fraud to illegal immigration and crime.

Surveys of British nationals revealed they wouldn't mind carrying such an ID, provided they didn't have to pay for it. But by July 2009, with estimates of the ID program's cost rising to £4.9 billion ($7.6 billion U.S.), government ministers said the cards would no longer be compulsory for British nationals. Ultimately, only about 12,000 people signed up for the cards.

But the identity cards won't go away. Taking a page from U.S. border policy, the government made the biometric cards mandatory for long-stay visa holders -- for people from outside the European Economic Area -- and requires them to visit one of a handful of centers set up to record the required biometric data.

On Tuesday, a U.K. government spokesperson confirmed that while the identity card bill did eliminate national ID cards for British nationals, they'll "still be used for foreign nationals, for residency purposes."

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