ID Cards

(Edited 13/06/2005, to reflect new pledgebank url that supercedes the last one).

I think in posting the link to the No to Id cards pledge I fell into a trap that many do, in that I was assuming it was obvious why ID cards are a Bad Thing(TM). ID cards are back with avengence, give the ID card bill is back taking into account few of the concerns raised on its initial form.

I’m not particularly against having a small piece of plastic with which you can identify yourself. I myself have a new-style driving license, and while I’m not required to do so, I keep it in my wallet which is rarely far from my person. So I have no objection to having a card with which I can identify myself.

Now many of my readers will be confused, and bewildered, and perhaps a little bored. If I have no objection to having a card with which I can prove my identity, what’s my problem with ID cards? And this is the problem anti-ID card campaigners have; the issues aren’t as obvious as they seem to interested parties. The arguments against ID cards can be broadly put into two categories; civil liberties, and practical issues.

The civil liberties arguments surrounding ID Cards are immensely important and far reaching, but unfortunately to many people they are dog whistle politics. Most people can’t see the difference between the proposed ID card scheme and owning a passport or photo card driving licence. Go to any depth into the civil liberties debate and their eyes glaze over. Mine do, and I’m politically active.

But (at Amy’s insistence) I’ll have a go. We are assured that these ID cards won’t hold much more data than your typical supermarket loyalty card. Well that’s an inaccuracy for a start. My supermarket loyalty card just holds my ID number in the loyalty scheme. The woman at the checkout at Tesco in Ilkley needs know nothing about me other that I’ve shopped at Tesco before. And she knows that anyway, because she served me last week. If I want there to be no record of any purchase I wish to make I either withhold my loyalty card, or shop elsewhere. What’s more Tesco don’t have any evidence that I also shop at Asda and Morrisons (but not Sainsburys, Waitrose or Safeway because I’m not stuck up, like).

The proposed ID cards will hold a lot more information on you than a supermarket loyalty card. Just how much will the person who just needs to know you are who you say you are? We are assured “not much” but such assurances are pretty hollow. Some may say, “You can’t really object unless you have something to hide” with the unspoken implication that anyone that has anything to hide must be a bit dodgy. I’m afraid I have to point out, some people are just utter utter morons. Are all the people with ex-directory telephone numbers dodgy people? Most people have some things they’d rather keep private, that they’d rather other people not knowing. I doubt that the scheme as proposed will be sophisticated enough to hold a plot of your DNA as part of the biometrics, and if it does I doubt we will have the ability to decode physical characteristics from it, but it is probable that through an ID card scheme all and sundry may know Amy dyes her hair. OK all and sundry do know that, but that was her choice.

Then there’s the centralised database. For ID cards to work there will need to be a centralised database. Yes government departments do already have information on us. The DVLA have records on me, but all they know is where I live, what I can drive, and what vehicles I own. Well a bit more than that, but not much. The Inland Revenue know how much I earn, and what benefits I get from my company, but little more than that. Each department knows as much as it needs to and no more, with a centralised database your privacy is decreased. And going back to the supermarket loyalty card analogy so thoughtfully handed to the no2ID crowd, it will be possible for a government to build up a profile on it’s electorate, through the monitoring of who checks your ID card.

A better bet are the practical concerns. The proposed ID cards are going to be expensive. It is amazing how overwhelming the opposition to ID cards becomes when surveys are up-front about the potential cost to the individual on £80-£100 a throw. On top of the individual costs are the expense of setting up the underlying infrastructure.

Yes we’re back to the centralised database. This is going to be an IT project so massive it’s going to put all others into the shade. The partnership of industry and government really don’t have a good record of delivering big national IT projects on time, on budget and to an acceptable standard.

My main objection to ID cards are more fundamental: they won’t do what they say on the tin. They won’t make this country more secure. They won’t prevent terrorism. They will do little to help prevent identity theft. The costs, in both the erosion of civil liberties and monetary terms, far outweigh the benefits.

This is not solely an issue which excites liberals. Rabid right-winger Peter Hitchens is pretty scathing about ID cards in his book The Abolition of Liberty. And recently the official line from the Conservative party has flip-flopped back to being against them, albeit mainly for the pragmatic economic reasons of “they’re a huge waste of tax-payers money”.

As during the run up to the Iraq war, the most convincing arguments against are the arguments for. All the arguments presented come across as lame excuses, tacked on after the fact. We were told we needed them to prevent terrorism, but the Madrid train bombers all had valid ID. The latest bogyman that ID cards are going to combat is identity fraud, however the figures we are being quoted with which to convince us are dubious to say the least. The way the excuse shifts from week to week is evidence of how little substance there is to it.

We are assured there will be limits to this scheme, but a system as proposed ought to be easily scalable if it is any good. The scheme may be initially voluntary, but how difficult will it become to avoid it how quickly.

An old uni friend Murky, Welsh Assembly member Peter Black and all round bright guy Jonathan Calder are amongst those who have also bloged about ID cards recently.

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