By Lewis Page
News emerged yesterday of a mysterious international ID card plan, described by the Tories as “a European-wide identity card project called Project Stork”. The Conservatives suggested in Parliament that Stork was a huge Europe-wide extension to the planned UK National ID card with its associated databases and biometrics.
“How,” asked the shadow Home Sec David Davis, did the government intend to “prevent a repetition of the disaster of the past few weeks when sensitive personal data are held not by one Government but by 27?”
The actual Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, seemed a trifle puzzled about what exactly Stork might be (“or Stalk,” says the Indy. Ha ha!).
“If the right hon. Gentleman wants to give me more information about the particular allegation that he is making, I will of course be willing to follow it up… The advantage of a national identity register is that it enables the linking of biometric information, maintained on one database, with biographic data, maintained on another, thereby strengthening the protection for individuals…”
Biometrics as a panacea for database misuse has already been dealt with, so we thought we’d chase down Project Stork.
Contacted by the Reg, a Home Office spokesman said that Project Stork was a “research project” designed to explore the interlinking of national e-government services across – so far – 14 countries. It is apparently meant to achieve “mutual recognition” between setups such as the UK’s Government Gateway portal, used for such purposes as submitting tax returns.
Stork, according to the Home Office, might let a UK citizen use his or her Government Gateway login in France, for such purposes as paying car tax on a French-registered car. The spokesman said that any future link to the UK national ID card scheme was “speculation at this point”.
The UK official lead on Stork is Dr Mireille Levy, Head of Identity Management Standards at the Home Office Identity and Passport Service (IPS), the organisation currently taking forward ID cards for foreign UK residents and which will take charge of the National ID scheme.
Dr Levy attended the prestigious Ecole normale supÃ©rieure, an elite academic hothouse feeding the French civil service, and holds a PhD in mathematics from the Paris University Pierre et Marie Curie. She has lived in the UK for some time, however, working as a topflight government scientist at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and as head of radio planning at the Home Office.
Dr Levy has also spent time as a “Homeland Security Executive” with the UK-headquartered arms colossus, BAE Systems plc, before taking up her current post at the Home Office IPS. She describes herself on the professional networking site LinkedIn as being employed in “Law Enforcement”.
Sadly Dr Levy was unwilling to speak to the Reg directly, referring all enquiries back to the Home Office press department.
The European Commission release has recently issued some information on Stork:
European ministers, as well as some non-European countries (e.g. Iceland), set themselves the political objective to reach mutual recognition and interoperability of electronic identities by the year 2010 in the Manchester Declaration adopted in November 2005. This declaration, however, also adopts the subsidiarity principle, leaving full autonomy to Member States as to what kind of electronic identity they issue. The STORK project is expected to help bridge the gap between the different eID systems currently in use, leading to a de facto standard for interoperability in eIDs. The deadline for this is 2010, when the EU’s European eID Management Framework comes into force.The UK’s Identity and Passport Service (IPS) is leading the pilot project, in close co-operation with the Government Gateway, the UK’s centralised registration service.
“It is about the eventual pan-European recognition of electronic IDs,” noted an IPS spokesperson. “Neither services nor entitlements will change; rather, the project is currently about looking at methods that already exist and figuring out how to make them recognise each other.”
STORK actually stands for Secure idenTity acrOss boRders acKnowledged*. Back in June, Belgian e-gov official Frank Leyman gave this presentation (pdf) on the scheme, describing it as a “large scale pilot” and saying that ten countries had signed “letters of intent” to participate, including the UK, Belgium, and others such as France, Poland, Estonia and Slovenia. Another five nations were interested but not committed at that stage.
“The consortium is about to be formed,” according to Mr Leyman. Belgians’ “eID” would be based on the Belgian national ID smartcard; other nations such as Slovenia would use “virtual identification” (presumably a login and password like the UK government gateway) and there would also – according to Leyman – be an “Anglo Saxon model”, based on “other identification tools like passports”.
The usefulness of Stork is described thus:
A citizen living in country A will be able with the eID… to make a tax declaration online in country B where s/he is currently working… get automatic and paperless reimbursement of health expenses incurred during holidays in country C… and get pension rights from country D (where s/he was working before for some years)…
One of the participating organisations in STORK is EEMA – “Europe’s leading independent, trade association for e-Business” – headquartered in the UK.
EEMA’s Roger Dean told the Reg that Stork is 50 per cent funded by the EU to the tune of â‚¬10m, with participating national governments and businesses expected to cough up another â‚¬10m. EEMA’s stance on eID/National ID cards is fairly plain:
ID cards were viewed positively during the Second World War, as a means of protecting citizens against spies. However, there are some serious concerns regarding the introduction of an ID card into the UK… such schemes have been in existence for years in other ‘civilised’ countries, are compulsory, and yet are not perceived as challenging civil rights. Properly implemented it could act for the greater social good… It is also likely that it would facilitate evoting and remote voting. However, one of the main benefits would be in providing proof of identification for ebusiness — an area which simply cannot enjoy its full potential without it… EEMA and a number of its Member organisations look forward to collaborating with the Government in this vital area of identity management.
Dean told the Reg that he himself was broadly in favour of a UK national ID card scheme.
“If you ask me, [UK] ID cards yes or no, I’d say yes,” he said. “Sooner or later everyone will have an identity card in some form… the Belgians are rolling theirs out, the Estonians are fully complete – though there are only two million of them, so that was a comparatively small project.”
Dean said that Stork was intended to allow, for instance, a doctor to access health records held by a different country. This did seem to confirm the Tories’ spectre of quite far-flung public officials being able to access the proposed UK databases. However Dean said that the process would be “under the individual’s control”.
Police forces, of course, already share information via organisations such as Interpol. Exactly how much access different enforcement authorities might have to the various Stork-involved databases across Europe wasn’t clear.
According to EEMA, the various participants in Project Stork have now submitted their proposals to the European Commission, and they await a decision “hopefully as soon as January or February” on the scheme moving ahead.
The Home Office, asked about this, said that proposals had indeed been submitted but they didn’t expect any EC decision before next April. Even then, they were at pains to emphasise that “this is purely a research effort”.
When it was pointed out that the Belgians were calling Stork a “large-scale pilot”, the Home Office spokesman said “well, we’re calling it a research project.”
Exact details remain to be established. The spectre of Austrian police officers (for instance) being able to spy on UK health or biometric records seems pretty remote – let alone the idea that, say, the Turkish government would have their own copies of UK databases as the Tories suggest. On the other hand, it isn’t hard to imagine even a quite innocuous implementation of STORK protocols creating some interesting records.
Suppose you did go to France and tax a car using your UK.gov login – forget about ID cards. The French system would need to check with the Brit one that your eID was real, and a record of that check would exist in the relevant logs if nowhere else. A British official wishing to know what you were up to could easily search these files, and say “aha – chummy has just taxed a car in France”, or been to see a doctor in Iceland**, or paid property taxes in Slovakia.
Likewise, our own Home Office might soon – if research next year determines that Stork-type ideas are feasible – have a somewhat better handle on just how many Estonians, Slovakians and Spaniards (etc) are using British government services and/or paying British taxes: and whether or not these people have a) obtained their mandatory foreign-resident ID cards and b) been truthful when submitting their details.
Lots of food for thought here. And it has to be said, those worried about the potential for catastrophic errors, bugs, leaks or backdoors in the government IT networks of the future may not find the compliant, ID-card-loving Belgians’ choice of tech partner reassuring. ®
Update: Since publication the Home Office have been back in touch. They’d like to reassure everyone that there are “no plans” to share usage information between governments (except as necessary to authenticate eIDs). They also say that the UK Government Gateway doesn’t keep any records of transactions “other than temporary ones” (though somebody in the government does – eg the tax people or the DVLA). Finally they say, in answer to whether you could use STORK eID checks to track an individual’s activities is “categorically no.”
So that’s all right then.
*Breaks every rule of Acronym Club, we say. Nobody the Reg spoke to could say who came up with it. Presumably something like Secret Tracking And Law-Enforcement Kommissariat (STALK) didn’t seem cuddly enough.
**Iceland is on board with Stork, though not an EU nation.