The UK Passport Service (UKPS) wants to introduce smart card-based passports which will hold biometric details such as an iris scan or fingerprint. The first of the new cards could be issued as early as 2006.
When individuals first apply for a passport, they might have to visit a Post Office where their personal details will be recorded. The card would be issued alongside the paper passport, which would still be needed for entry into countries that use entry stamps.
The plans, which will require government approval and be put out to public consultation, were revealed by UKPS chief executive Bernard Herdan.
"There's a possibility that we will ask first time applicants to come in and see us. And linked to that is the thought that we might try to capture a biometric [form of ID]," he told vnunet.com.
"This would enable us to link an [individual] identity to a biometric like an iris scan, facial recognition or fingerprint. That would be quite a big step but a number of countries are considering it."
The iris scan or fingerprint would be encoded into the card so that it could not be faked.
Explaining that individuals will accept the additional trouble of a personal visit as it would vastly improve security, Herdan said: "It would add to the burden because people would have to go somewhere, but I think on balance public opinion would accept that.
"This is about allowing people to assert their own identity and preventing fraud and stopping identity theft. And this is our answer. This is not about Big Brother."
The UKPS has not decided whether to go straight for the biometric card or to start with a card which simply mirrors the paper version. It said that travellers would keep the two documents separate, so that if one was lost or stolen the other could be used to get a replacement.
"We've been working on a passport card for a couple of years. It will be great as a customer service. You can see a migration path from the passport and card arrangement to something carrying a biometric. Whether we get there in stages is something that we are considering," said Herdan.
But civil liberties watchdog Liberty maintained that building a massive database is disproportionate to the problem.
Liberty spokesman Roger Bingham said: "We've got no objection to making passports harder to fake. But is a database of iris scans and fingerprints of everyone in the country really the best and most balanced response to a small number of people making multiple applications?
"It's unclear what threat this is tackling. Can the UKPS guarantee that this vast database of people's intimate identities will be adequately protected and not misused?"
The UKPS wants agreement across Europe on standards for the cards so that people could travel across Europe using just the card.
It is also looking at the possibility of DIY smart card readers at airports so that people can check that the information is on the card.
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