ID Cards: A Titanic project waiting for its iceberg

Q&A: Professor Ian Angell, head of LSE's department of information systems, claims that not only is the scheme likely to blow up in the government's face, it may also be illegal

The controversy around ID Cards raged on this week with the rejection of the ID card bill by the House of Lords. Peers refused to pass the bill primarily on the grounds of costs, and voted to force the government to provide a detailed budget for the project before proceeding.

For its part, the Home Office has vowed to fight the Lords decision and push the bill through claiming that more transparency will actually push the cost of the scheme up. The government has maintained that the cost of implementing the ID card scheme will be £5.8bn, but a study by the London School of Economics (LSE) concluded that the figure could be more like £19bn, and could even be as high as £30bn.

ZDNet UK spoke with Professor Ian Angell, head of LSE's department of information systems, to find out why his organisation’s estimates differ so much from the government’s and why he sees the whole project as a "dog’s dinner".

Q: The Home Office has said it will seek to overturn the Lords vote against the ID card Bill. What do you think should be the next stage in this process?
A: There needs to be a full review of costs of IT implementation. It's crazy that the Home Office can get a bill through the House of Commons without MPs having the full information. The National Audit Office is the ideal place to review the figures. The Home Office claimed that making costs transparent would actually push costs up, as giving details would limit its bargaining power. That's like saying 'To hell with the National Audit Office — they can find out we've been overcharged after the event." Obviously there are no guarantees for costs, but the Home Office keeps moving the goalposts. The whole thing's a dog's dinner.

You obviously don't think the scheme will be a success then?
I feel ambivalent about it. As a taxpayer, I'm horrified. As a professor of information systems, I'd love them to implement the scheme, because a lot of work will come from this. It'll be like watching the Titanic from the drawing board to the iceberg. This is going to be a shambles.

Why do you think it'll be such a shambles?
To implement an information system, you need to have a clear set of objectives to reach and aims to address. What you have here is a moving target. The cards may be used for e-commerce authentication, but also as an ID card, like an Ahnenpass, which is what the police want."

An Ahnenpass?
An Ahnenpass is what the Nazis issued to the Jews to identify them. This is what the Muslims will see it as. White-boy organisations demanding searches, and charging taxpayers for it.

Some estimates put the cost of implementing the scheme at £300 per person. Will it really be that expensive?
The overall cost may not be £300 per person, because the government will generate income from the system, by selling the system and the expertise to run it to other governments. But the only governments that will take it are other disreputable ones. The scheme will not work. The social environment it will be dropped into will be so disruptive. It's not even clear if the scheme is legal under EU law.

Are there any other reasons why you believe the scheme won't work?
These people [the government] have obsessive-compulsive neuroses. Idiotic designers who think the world can be proscribed and ordered just so, when the world is non-linear. The flap of a butterfly's wing, and so on. This is a government of control freaks, who don't understand there's no such thing as control.

The Lords rejected the Bill in part because of concerns over the security of data. How do you feel about using ID cards for both authentication and to establish identity?
There are going to have to be substantial secondary systems put in place. What idiot says the system is going to be infallible? There will be a 0.1 percent failure rate at least. If this is part of ecommerce, the security concerns will be horrendous. Imagine the security issues of having 40,000 or 50,000 retail outlets, linked to the ID card network.

The Lords were particularly concerned about the use of data. What is your view?
Any change is problematic when an underlying philosophy is replaced by a slightly different philosophy, using the same data. Data does not integrate easily when transposed. For example, it was found that Holland had a much higher vehicle theft rate than the rest of Europe. Then it was noticed that that was because the Dutch were classing bicycles as vehicles. There are more subtle examples, but the same holds true. Data is fixed, but interpretation depends on context."

How about data retention and centralisation?
Each database is scanned by another database, which is in turn scanned by another database. If there's an error on one database, this will be replicated over the system, even if the initial database is corrected. Databases degrade, which is something the designers are not taking into account. They think technology will get rid of inefficient humans.

Aside from security concerns about ecommerce, have you got any other concerns?
The vast majority of security problems are to do with errors. The way people operate is not like a computer. There are other security questions. Will there be local access to the databases? Will there be access to a central database? Who has access? Who is liable when things go wrong? What if the information stored is wrong about you? Who do you go to, to check, and change the information? What rights do you have to view and change the data? The government haven't even said what's going to be on the card. That's outrageous!"

The other problem is complexity. How will the system cope with criminal behaviour, incompetence, spurious details, and things you haven't thought of when designing the system? Honest people are the only ones who won't benefit. It will be a one-stop shop for fraud. This is what complexity does.

What do you think the future of the bill will be?
It depends on whether the politicians try to be macho and force it through. It depends whether the House of Commons has teeth, and says, "We're not going to rubber stamp this."

And if the Bill is passed?
It will turn into another form of taxation. The parallel is cameras on motorways. This started out as road safety, and turned into a tax. It will be a licence to print money for the government. Look at what has happened in Holland. 50,000 Dutch people have been fined for not having ID cards in the nine months since they have been compulsory. Suddenly every officious policeman is demanding to see ID cards, and fining people who don't have them.

Final thoughts?
This will blow up in their faces, and it'll be a hugely expensive explosion.