True Lies

It’s all rather worthy of a satirical Bremner, Bird and Fortune sketch, last week’s news on identity cards that is. Lot’s of photo opportunities for Home Office Ministers to wave examples of the new cards around, supported by popular consent. 80% of those questioned by Mori, appear unworried by any civil liberties argument and overwhelmingly support the idea, convinced of course that identity cards, which will carry one’s name and age and date and will be linked to a national database which will contain information on criminal records, health details and social security information, offers solid and irrevocable proof of well, identity, whatever that might be?

The Home Secretary argues that his £3 billion scheme to introduce ID cards will help fight against organised crime, illegal immigration, terrorism, identity fraud and 'health tourism' but then nobody actually has to carry one but will have to produce a card within a limited period if asked by the police. This rather assumes that a certain Mr Osama Bin London, holding a driving license in the name of Tom Jones, will actually present himself at Paddington Green Police Station with his shiny new ID card, which confirms that he is indeed Tom Jones, as properly confirmed by the array of official documents in his possession.

Of course and as one Sunday newspaper points out, when it comes to identity cards, technology runs second to the more important matter of political correctness and instead of a photograph, there will be an exemption for religious groups, who will only have to give fingerprint and iris-recognition data. So, no photograph then, a well-proven means of swiftly being able to tell if you happen to look like you and not Tom Jones and you’ll be able to point at the fingerprint on the card and say, “That’s me before I shaved off the beard and lost some weight”, conveniently ignoring a report published earlier this year in ">New Scientist that claims that there is little scientific basis for the infallibility of fingerprints, and that what research there is, is fatally flawed.

Add to this, the conviction, expressed in the same poll, that government will be unable to execute the ID programme without the inevitable public sector IT fiasco and we have a recipe for ‘Son of Pathway’, the billion pound Information and Communications Technology project for the Post Office & Benefits Agency, which was supposed to tackle the annual £1.3 billion burden of identity fraud and swiftly became the public sector equivalent of the millennium dome.

If the man in the street believes that government has very little chance of rolling out any ID card programme without incident, then I would expect that the confidence level within the IT industry and among Computer Weekly readers would be proportionately lower, given their grasp of history and lower levels of expectation. After all, last week, a leaked Cabinet Office document suggests that as much as £20 billion has been wasted in the Public Sector since the government first came to power in 1997 and I’m prepared to bet that the identity card programme will cost at least half a much again as the Home Secretary is asking for, before the technology and the practical issues are resolved to anyone’s satisfaction.

I have one more problem. In fact I have two.

The first of these is that politics, religion and technology do not mix comfortably in this debate. I could not imagine any other European Union state suffering angst over having photographs of the bearer on ID cards or even passports and the suggestion that any minority group might successfully object to having a personal photograph displayed on an identity card is bizarre, to say the least.

The second problem takes me back to my last column on the subject. What exactly constitutes a ‘trusted identity’ in Britain today? I can’t easily answer this question and I’m not sure the Home Office can either, as it appears to involve presenting three documents, which themselves could be the products of identity theft.

However, our earlier example, Mr Osama Bin London, previously of Acacia Avenue, SW18, will be aware of a new offence to be announced by David Blunkett, ‘possession of a false document’, which carries maximum penalty of ten years in prison, slightly less than sentence for being convicted of exploding in a public place, so it’s likely that he will have ditched his suitcase full of passports, paid his £35 and dutifully placed his thumbprint – not his photo mind you – on his brand new UK ID card, which says he Tom Jones.

That’s alright then.


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