LONDON Britain launched on Thursday the selection process to choose companies to run its multi-billion pound national identity card scheme, the world's most ambitious biometric project.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government described the move as "another milestone" towards the controversial compulsory scheme, which is expected to cost more than 5 billion pounds over the next decade.
Ministers say the cards carrying fingerprint, iris and face-recognition technology, are vital to fight terrorism, serious organized crime and illegal immigration.
The scheme, due to be rolled out from 2009, would see Britons issued with ID cards for the first time since they were abolished after World War Two.
"This is a groundbreaking project, with the potential for huge benefits for individuals and for the nation," Home Office Minister Meg Hillier said.
"As the Framework Procurement published today makes clear, we are committed to introducing the scheme carefully and securely, minimizing both cost and risk."
The notice, published in the Official Journal of the European Union, invites firms to bid for the supply and maintenance of computer systems and the issuing of the cards themselves.
Media reports said five firms would be chosen for the project with the largest contracts said to be worth up to 500 million pounds.
The cards, which will involve one of the world's largest IT schemes, have drawn much criticism, with opponents saying they will infringe civil rights and be a costly flop.
The opposition Conservative Party warned potential bidders on Thursday that it would scrap the scheme if it wins the next election.
"This project will do nothing to improve our security," said David Davis, the Conservative home affairs spokesman.
"In fact independent experts like Microsoft and the LSE (London School of Economics) have pointed out that it could well make our security worse while costing the tax payer 20 billion pounds in the process."
ID cards are used in about a dozen European Union countries but are not always compulsory and do not carry as much data as those planned for Britain.