The United States wants Britain’s proposed identity cards to have the same microchip and technology as the ones used on American documents.
The aim of getting the same microchip is to ensure compatability in screening terrorist suspects. But it will also mean that information contained in the British cards can be accessed across the Atlantic.
Michael Chertoff, the newly appointed US Secretary for Homeland Security, has already had talks with the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, and the Transport Secretary, Alistair Darling, to discuss the matter.
Mr Chertoff said yesterday that it was vital to seek compatibility, holding up the example of the “video war” of 25 years ago, when VHS and Betamax were in fierce competition to win the status of industry standard for video recording systems.
“I certainly hope we have the same chip… It would be very bad if we all invested huge amounts of money in biometric systems and they didn’t work with each other.Hopefully, we are not going to do VHS and Betamax with our chips. I was one of the ones who bought Betamax, and that’s now in the garbage,” he said.
Mr Chertoff also proposed that British citizens wishing to visit the US should consider entering a “Trusted Traveller” scheme. Under this, they would forward their details to the US embassy to be vetted. If successful, they would receive a document allowing “fast- tracking” through the US immigration system.
A pilot scheme will start within a few months between the US and the Netherlands, allowing Dutch visitors to use a Trusted Traveller card to enter the US without being subjected to further questioning or screening.
Britain is one of 27 countries whose citizens do not need visas to enter the US if they intend to stay less than 90 days. The American government has said it wants 27 to issue new passports by 26 October this year containing a computer chip and a digital photograph.
Mr Chertoff said compatability and the checking system was intended purely to track down “terrorists and criminals” and the main aim was to provide a “fair and reasonable system”.
US diplomatic sources stated later that Washington did not wish to interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries.
“When we screen based on names, we’re screening on the most primitive and least technological basis of identification – it’s the most susceptible to misspelling, or people changing their identity, or fraud,” he said.
The scheme will also, say diplomats, ease confusion over who exactly constitutes a suspect. The most high-profile case was that of Yusuf Islam, the singer formerly known as Cat Stevens, who was barred from entering the US because his activities “could be potentially linked to terrorism”. The British government is insistent that Mr Islam had no such links.
However, this is the latest controversy to surround Britain’s proposed combined identity card and passport due to be introduced in three years’ time. Rising costs have pushed the cost up to £93 each after the overall estimated 10-year cost of the project grew from £3.1bn to £ 5.8 bn.
There have also been problems over the effectiveness of the biometric technology which is supposed to safeguard the security of the cards. There were also verification problems with 30 per cent of those whose fingerprint was taken during an enrolment trial of 10,000 volunteers.
By Kim Sengupta