Thales has won a four-year contract worth £18 million for the UK's national ID card programme, which aims to keep closer track of its citizens to cut down on crime and fraud.

The contract is the first to be awarded, according to the UK Identity and Passport Service (IPS). Thales will design and test the National Identity Register, a database that will hold peoples' personal and biometric details.

Thales is one of five main suppliers picked by IPS that will compete for specific contracts for various projects to support the ID card plan. The 10-year project, expected to run through 2017, will cost at least £4.7 billion.

Computer Sciences (CSC), Electronic Data System (EDS), Fujitsu and IBM are also part of the "strategic supplier group," which IPS has said was created to speed the procurement process and issuing of contracts. 3M, which makes the UK's biometric passports, has been selected to manufacture the ID cards.

The ID card programme was attacked in May by an independent group of advisors, which issued a report with concerns over how the complex system would be integrated with other government systems.

The scrutiny of the ID card project follows criticism of other large UK government IT projects. The IT revamp of the National Health Service has been plagued by problems with suppliers and cost overruns.

IPS is scheduled to start issuing biometric ID cards to foreign nationals this year. By late next year, ID cards will be issued to so-called critical workers, such as those employed at airports and other security-related jobs. In 2010, the cards will be issued to those who request them, with a mass issuance starting around 2011 or 2012.

The programme, which was fiercely opposed by privacy activists and those concerned about security, will be compulsory for those over 16 years old. Those applying for a new passport or renewing one will be issued an ID card.

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