Pick a card, just not any card

Rupert Goodwins: Universal ID cards are still on the agenda, but they haven't been thought through.

If you're of a certain age, you may remember a comedy sketch from Not The Nine O'Clock News where Mrs Miggins visits the post office. "Hello, Mrs M!" says the counter clerk. "How's the lumbago?". "Hello Dorothy. Not bad, considering," says Mrs Miggins, "I see your Kenneth's talking to our Deirdre again." "Ooooh, you wouldn't believe what she told me," says the clerk, "about what he's been up to with Dr Welling. But look, there's a bit of a queue. If you pop round for tea this afternoon I'll tell you everything. Here for your pension?" "Yes please, Dot." "Got any ID?"

Personal identity is a modern invention. For most of history, you either knew with whom you dealt because you'd lived with them for most of your lives, or you took it on trust because there was no alternative -- papers could be faked. But when modern democracies got going and governments started to take responsibility for more and more of their citizens' livelihoods, it became important that everyone could find out who the others actually were. This set in motion the process of recording and identifying each new example of homo sapiens as they made their appearance, a process that is now heading towards Entitlement Cards -- the government's unthreatening name for a universal ID card.

I love the idea of an ID card. In fact, I've got about five -- driving licence, passport, credit card, debit card, work ID -- and they're all useful. It'd be handy to have just the one, and if it meant that doctors always had access to my medical records and police could send me on my way instantly, I'd be fine with it. If I could leap on a plane, hire a car and pay for my hotel with just one bit of plastic -- or better, a twinkle of my iris -- I wouldn't complain. All I ask in return is that the system that issues cards, and collates and distributes the data, is perfect. Show me that it is flawless, and that the people operating it are surrounded by unimpeachable checks and balances, and I'll sign up on the spot. But if there's a chance of abuse, ineptitude, fraud or cock-up, then I'll remain implacably opposed.

How can it go wrong? Let me count the obvious ways. If the card can be faked, then my identity can be stolen -- a crime currently committed around a million times a year in the US alone -- and the fake me can do things that will ruin my life in seconds and take years to untangle. If someone in power takes a dislike to me, or is persuaded that I'm some sort of threat, then my rights can be withdrawn or my every move monitored. If the system breaks down and my ID stops working, then I can be effectively cut off from money, travel, access to help, even communications. That's the practical stuff. Judge for yourself how likely these things are by considering how often your bank, telephone company, local council or whatever have messed things up in the past. It'll be the same people running the show.

If you're of a more thoughtful bent, the philosophical issues are just as chewy. A universal ID system is a major change in the social contract between the state and the citizen. We're at a disadvantage in the UK; we have no written constitution, just a huge body of law, tradition and practice that defies comprehension even by experts. I have legal obligations to my local council, the UK government and Europe, any of which can enact powers that I must obey on pain of prison. My power over them consists of a handful of votes a decade, and the right to ask questions. They aren't allowed to break the law, of course, which is there to protect me from them as much as vice-versa -- but one side of the equation has the resources of a country behind them. It ain't me. The whole business exists to keep the balance of power between the individual and the state on an even keel, and ID cards can so easily tip that in the wrong direction. And that's with the best will in the world.

ID cards are the nuclear weapons of statehood. They must be treated with the utmost caution, and the system behind them treated with just as much care. Imagine the fun if terrorists managed to destroy or steal the national database, or if a palace coup gave the keys to a consortium of nutters. Can't happen here? Says who? Prove it to me.

So far, the signs aren't good. If it wasn't for the sterling efforts -- again! -- of the fine folks on www.stand.org.uk (visit today), the government would be well on its way to introducing this with nary a whisper of dissent. It's already tried to pretend that everyone's in favour, the problems are nugatory, the opposition 'intellectual pygmies' (thank you, David Blunkett) and the benefits unarguable. We know better -- even Mrs Miggins would agree -- and if we don't want this huge, irresponsible, irreversible experiment in changing our lives to go ahead we must ask the hard questions and take no nonsense in return.

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