Are ID cards a game of blind man's bluff?

ID cards are nothing to worry about, says the government. So why does nothing about them stack up?

So now we know. Over the next ten years, the government plans to issue everyone living in the UK with a compulsory ID card containing biometric data and other personal details. Look forward to long queues in your local post office as everyone lines up to get their irises photographed, their fingerprints taken and possibly their DNA swabbed, then look forward to a world where you and the sixty million other members of the UK National Database are faced with an infinite number of bureaucrats demanding "Let's see your card" before deigning to speak to you.

What is the thinking behind this? David Blunkett, minister in charge of state-sanctioned nastiness for British citizens, has said that the system will prevent crime. It will be impossible, he said, to fake a card, and the whole system will be utterly reliable. Costs will be reasonable. And there are no civil liberty issues.

Let's look at the technical side of things first. Forget that the track record of government IT projects is execrable -- it's hard to find projects that come in on time, on budget and to spec, and all too easy to find cases like the Libra magistrates system. Ten years after the government decided to introduce a common system to courts across the country the project is late, more than twice over-budget and not working properly. The winning contractor, Fujitsu ICL, put in a bid that was too low to do the job and threatened to pull out unless it was bought off with more money and much laxer conditions. It got both, but not to much avail. But as I said, forget that -- and forget that this project would be much, much larger.

Forget too that no biometric project on this scale has ever been undertaken, and no current technology comes close to the sort of reliability needed. Ignore the number of trials that have failed -- even the Chinese gave up. Don't worry about the way other EU identity documents will be acceptable to the system, regardless of the fact that they have few of the security features we're promised. Assume that for the first time in history, nobody involved in creating the cards and maintaining the database will be open to bribes or other naughtiness. And believe that a system with unprecedented networks of card readers and access points can be made truly secure.

Imagine for a moment that the system can be created and made to work according to Blunkett's promise, and you have a card that absolutely, positively says who you are. Nobody else has your name connected to their biometrics -- the system is infallible, remember. As a result, the entire country has moved over to a way of life where that card is an essential part of any transaction -- be it with your bank, the police, the local council or even the sofa shop.

Imagine the fun you'll have when you lose the card. Imagine the joy when the chip gets fried by a blast of static electricity. Or when the reader the bloke in the post office is using to identify the parcel you're sending can't talk to the central database because the network's down. Didn't know there were plans to make the senders of all posted items identifiable, did you? There are in the US. A universal system of identification will inevitably become inextricably interwoven with everyday life, a national grid of authorisation, and like the real National Grid it will be more than an inconvenience when it stops working.

Blunkett's attitude to civil liberties seems to be limited to the old saw: if you've done nothing wrong you've got nothing to worry about. There are two major problems with this, of course. First, it assumes that people with the power to use your ID are infallible and incorruptible -- an assumption that the law has never made in the past. There are reasons why policemen need search warrants to enter your house without your permission, and nobody suggests that these are no longer necessary because only criminals need fear the police. Second, it assumes that no government will ever misuse its powers to define what's wrong and what's right. That may be true of our current happy band of pilgrims, but I would submit that history is full of governments who abuse their positions. When Blunkett can guarantee that all people are perfect and the impossibility of future governmental abuse, then no, there'll be no civil liberty issues.

As for reducing crime: well, sure. For those criminals too stupid, poor, badly connected or bold to bother getting a fake ID, they'll be nabbed if they use their own and they can be traced thereafter. Some people will just not bother to break laws because they suspect they'll be caught, and that's good. But nobody, not even Blunkett, is saying how much crime will be reduced and why such a massive, intrusive scheme is the best way of doing it. As for the often quoted idea that it will reduce terrorism -- there are few groups of people more adept at misdirecting and avoiding official scrutiny. An ID card will present few problems to the committed.

But that's not the point. The point is that on every aspect of the argument made by Blunkett -- technical, legal, commercial and criminal -- is at best open to question and at worst verifiably wrong. Whatever's driving his conviction, it's not what he's telling us. Until we find out what's actually going on, the only sane response is deep suspicion and a resolute determination to be told the truth. We must not become the most monitored people on earth without being told why.

Newsletters

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
See All
See All