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Mistaken Identity

The Proposed National Identity Card

“An extraordinary situation". The opening words of Simon Davies from Privacy International, apologising to the audience at The London School of Economics for the absence of David Blunkett at a public meeting to discuss the proposed national identity card.

“In fact”, said Simon Davies, “It’s quite unprecedented. We have no agency, no Minister, no official and this meeting is quite unrecognised, even though it had attracted the Shadow Home Secretary, David Davis, MP, David Cameron, the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman, Liberty, Statewatch, The Law Society, Ross Anderson, The Assistant Information Commissioner, The Muslim Council of Great Britain and many more leading figures in the privacy and identity space.

Never, I thought, as I took my notes during the meeting, have I seen a pillar of Government policy look so demonstrably fragile and flawed. Neatly dissected by the opening arguments of the Shadow Home Secretary and then buried alive by the experts who followed, we were offered little or no reason to believe that an identity card would be proportionate, cost effective or even capable of addressing the problems surrounding terrorism or illegal immigration.

A YouGov opinion poll of two thousand electors, commissioned last month by Privacy International, has discovered that only 61% of the population support compulsory identity cards and not 80% as suggested by the government. While this still represents a substantial majority in favour of the measure, 28% of those opposing compulsory cards said they were prepared to take to the streets to participate in demonstrations and 6% indicated that they were prepared to go to prison rather than carry one. Conservative voters were particularly opposed, with 24% polled prepared to participate in a campaign of civil disobedience.

David Davis expressed concern that the government’s track record in respect to the protection of confidential information has been poor. Over time, he pointed out there has been an increasing exchange of data between departments without legislation and authorised instead by a Ministerial decision, which has permitted information to flow sideways among agencies. “The Government”, said Davis, “Has been careless or mischievous or worse in its handling of information”, and in illustration, he pointed at the examples of Martin Sixsmith, Pam Warren and Dr David Kelly. Echoing Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw’s own concerns, Davis said that an ID card work well in identifying people from a well-established background who present no threat but doesn’t work at all for others. Simply claiming that our own will be ‘More sophisticated’ than anyone else’s fail to make the case as a deterrent to terrorists, in that since 1986, twenty of the twenty five countries who experienced terrorist outrages have a national identity card scheme and five of these use biometrics.

The Government failed to find even a word of comfort from David Winnick MP, a member of Labour’s Home Affairs Committee, who was at pains to add that his views were very much his own. He and Lord Philips of Sudbury reinforced the message that identity cards might work in countries which had the benefit of a written constitution and a Bill of Rights but we don’t and the measure demands a much wider national debate on the nature of democracy and our own increasingly fragile-looking constitution. Winnick was particularly worried over ‘Function Creep’, in that a voluntary scheme would very soon become a compulsory scheme.

If there was any good news, then we were told, was that Government success rate for large IT projects has doubled in the last four years to 34% so we have every reason to expect ID cards to carry through with equal success.

Once again then, the Home Office is so convinced by the strength of its case that nobody was prepared or perhaps able to defend its position in public. Opponents are now focusing on shifting their attack to the registry or in other words, the details that Government wishes to cross reference and keep on each citizen in a central database, which is quite frightening once you read what they are asking for.

The population has high expectations of identity cards, driven by fears over illegal immigration and terrorism. Sadly, the facts of the matter are that given an avalanche of facts and figures to the contrary delivered by experts from all sides at the LSE’s public meeting last week, the Mr Blunkett’s ID card argument is specious and not worth the plastic it may be printed on.


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