Britain's growing preoccupation with Big Brother surveillance is set to be transformed by government plans to issue identity cards.
In a clear sign of a continuing post-9/11 concern for security, Prime Minister Tony Blair's cabinet served notice this week of its intention to introduce the high-tech cards, which will contain personal details and biometric data about individuals.
The cards will be linked to a national database that will be able to authenticate identities. The system is to be phased in over several years, but the government ultimately expects it to be compulsory.
Police have welcomed the move, saying it will help combat terrorism and illegal immigration. The government also hopes to wield the technology to fight employment and benefit fraud.
But opponents argue that the move will do little to hamper real criminals or terrorists, and mutter darkly about Orwellian tendencies and assaults on personal freedoms.
There is also concern about the scheme's steep cost, evaluated at about £3 billion ($5 billion), not to mention the untried technology, which includes iris scanning and possibly fingerprinting for 60 million people.
"We think it's unnecessary, expensive, and will almost certainly lead to infringement of basic civil liberties," says Barry Hugill of the human rights group Liberty. "It is stated that an ID card would help in the battle against terrorism. I have never seen any evidence to back this up."
The ID program will enhance a growing surveillance culture in a country that often is extremely touchy on issues such as asylum, immigration, terrorism and street crime.
It also puts Britain out in front of five English-speaking countries that have mulled the idea - though only Canada is actively examining a national card.
Mindful of the controversy, the British plan involves a gradual approach. The national database will be built over the next three years, and the card will be tested on a trial group and then offered as a voluntary piece of ID.
But it will be compulsory for anyone replacing an expiring passport or applying for a new driver's license.
The country's 4.6 million foreign nationals will also be required to have the card. Individuals will have to bear the cost - as much as £77 ($130) - and police and security services will be able to access the data.
The government says that within 10 years, participation will be at 80 percent, paving the way for compulsory, universal cards, which would be needed for everything from job interviews to health checkups and benefit claims. It claims a 60 percent public approval rating in its own surveys.
"It is important to move towards a system where we are able to minimize the risks of fraud and abuse and, indeed, minimize the threats to our security," Mr. Blair said as the plans were unveiled this week.
The counterterrorism argument is a powerful one in Britain at the moment. Earlier this week, a survey by the Control Risks Group consultancy found London to be the preeminent terrorist target in Western Europe.
Police chief Sir John Stevens said that it was "absolutely essential" to have proper means of identification given the "dangerous world we live in."
But critics note that the perpetrators of the Sept. 11 atrocities in New York were all in possession of forged papers.
"The concept that the card will tackle benefit fraud or terrorism is flawed," says Mark Oaten, a member of parliament for the opposition Liberal Democrats. "It could create a false sense of security. The determined terrorist will get through anyway."
Continental Europe's record provides little encouragement. France was no safer from Algerian terrorists in the 1990s because of its ID card. Russian paperwork today appears useless in the face of Chechen suicide bombers.
And police tendencies in these and other countries to target ethnic minorities in ID checks merely fosters resentment. "Anyone dark-skinned is more likely to be targeted," says Mr. Hugill, insisting that this will be the case in Britain, where the police have been accused of being institutionally racist. "The fear remains that cards would lead to the targeting of nonwhite citizens, especially in the current climate of near hysteria surrounding asylum seekers."
"The minute you start valuing security more than liberty, you will create ... problems of resentment and alienation among minority groups," he adds. "This could create an atmosphere in which it is easier for fundamentalists to recruit."
Questions have also been raised about the formidable task of collating - and safeguarding - information. Liberty and other rights groups argue that the cards are a further affront to personal freedom and privacy in a society already bristling with closed-circuit systems and road-traffic cameras.
Not everyone buys theories of a burgeoning Big Brother society. "Anyone who has worked in government thinks it laughable that the state can be watching you 24 hours a day," says Nick Pearce, acting director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. "The Anglo-Saxon world is addressing this debate from a new perspective," he says. "No one pretends ID cards are the answer to terrorism. But they are starting to ask what we need to do to secure our identity in the world and manage migration better."