Opposition grows in ID card debate

As the consultation over ID cards draws to a close, privacy groups report increased opposition to the scheme, which would require a massive government database storing details on millions of adults

Opposition is growing against the introduction of an ID card in Britain, according to privacy advocates who believe the idea is an unnecessary and expensive threat to civil liberty.

Privacy International has said there has been a surge in the number of people contacting the Home Office to express their hostility over the last few weeks.

One factor cited by those who oppose ID cards is the issue of data protection, and the government's ability or inability to keep personal information secret. Such an entitlement card would require the creation of a masive database, storing details about tens of millions of adults -- government critics claim it is incapable of preventing unauthorised access to this material.

Back in July 2002 the UK government launched a six-month consultation into entitlement cards, which it claims could help combat fraud and identity theft, and deliver public services more effectively. This consultation exercise, home secretary David Blunkett said at the time, would allow members of the public to submit their opinion on the issue before the government made a firm decision.

In its consultation, the government insists that any scheme would comply with the requirements of the Data Protection Act -- by "setting out the purposes of the central register on which a card scheme would be based in legislation and drawing up regulations for the use of any unique personal number which might be given to every person who registered."

In a press release issued in December, the government claimed that most of the feedback it had received supported the introduction of entitlement cards. "The response so far to a public consultation on the scheme shows a two-to-one split in favour of the plans," it said, adding that around 1,500 individuals and organisations had submitted comments.

It appears, though, that the tide has swung against the government in recent days, and with just over two weeks to run it seems likely that the consultation will end with a majority opposing an entitlement card.

STAND, a group that was originally formed to fight the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, redesigned its home page last Friday to draw attention to what it sees as the reasons why the introduction of ID cards is a bad move. STAND also provided links to allow readers to express their view to the Home Office, either for or against the proposal.

According to Privacy International -- which is also helping people to register their views -- the overwhelming majority of responses submitted in recent days have been negative.

"The government's plan to introduce a national ID card suffered a setback today with the release of figures indicating a surge of opposition to the proposals," said Privacy International in a statement released yesterday.

"A series of consultation response initiatives by Privacy International and the campaign group STAND have attracted more than 2,700 responses to the consultation since last Friday afternoon, nearly all in opposition to an ID card," it added.

Since yesterday, the amount of interest has risen further. At the time of writing, almost 4,000 responses have been submitted via STAND's Web site.

On Wednesday, Privacy International launched another method by which concerned citizens can register their view on the entitlement card debate.

It has set up two local-rate numbers, one -- 0845 330 7245 -- for callers who are in favour of the scheme and another -- 0845 330 7246 -- for those who are against. Each message left on these lines will be converted to an audio file, and then forwarded to the Home Office, which has already confirmed that they be regarded as legitimate consultation responses.

Simon Davies, Privacy International's director, believes that support for the introduction of an entitlement card was dropping late on Tuesday at a rate of 1 percent per hour, and estimates that at least 10,000 negative responses will have been submitted by 31 January, when the consultation closes.

"The government has failed to establish a convincing case for the card. The consultation has been a sham from the word go," said Davies on Tuesday.

"An ID card is costly, dangerous and unnecessary. Many of the responses reflect this view. Many also complain about the sheer arrogance of government in the way it has managed the consultation," he added.

Davies is also angry that Privacy International has been prevented from distributing printed material at a conference held on Wednesday to discuss the issue, organised by the Office of the Information Commissioner.

This conference was chaired by Richard Thomas, the new UK information commissioner, who claimed beforehand that it would help ensure that "all the key concerns and issues with regard to data protection and privacy will have been clearly identified and drawn to the attention of the government so it may takes these into account in deciding whether to continue with its proposals."

Davies, though, is critical of Thomas' organisation.

""I am not sure we can rely on the Information Commissioner's office to guard our rights when they are compromised by an identity card. It appears in this instance that they have a cosy relationship with the Home Office," he claimed.

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