Take a Deep Breath

The CBI’s expression of support for national identity cards may be enough encouragement to breathe more life into another muddled and potentially expensive IT disaster.

Deputy Director General, John Cridland is quite right to express concern that the absence of a national scheme makes the UK more vulnerable to criminals and terrorists but the Home Office, which plans to introduce biometric cards by 2007 and make them compulsory by 2013, needs very little encouragement in its blundering attempts to drive through a solution that all civil-libertarians, many MPs and most technologists, doubt can actually deliver the economic and security benefits that Home Secretary, David Blunkett imagines.

Where Cridland goes wrong in my view, is by say saying, "ID cards could improve security and make access to public services more efficient. Companies want ID cards to be a universal identity-authentication system.” Most of us would like to see world peace and a cure for cancer but perhaps not in our lifetime and the same may be said for the benefits promised on behalf of identity cards. After all, in the many countries that have them, even biometric cards, crime and terrorism simply find new mechanism to circumvent the inconvenience of having to produce a piece of plastic on demand.

It’s not just the cards that are a worry, because they represent the tip of the iceberg. It’s the data that lies behind the identity system. How it’s captured, how it’s stored and how it’s shared. I wonder how many readers would, if asked, would trust government – any government – with that information. After all, mistakes are inevitable with any large data-based system, my own postcode being one small example. You try convincing an insurance company or a mortgage lender, that the Royal Mail has given you the wrong postcode for your address, when they input your details on to a screen.

One problem is that government, as always, is being dazzled by the promises of the big IT companies, like one I met with last month. In this case, they are keen to be involved in any national scheme because they are very good at the ID-card technology and have a strong record in the United States, which is nice but what they actually seem to be saying is that they can deliver the mix of technology that can embed biometric information on a plastic square and store that information on a database, which operates at a rather different scale to having a national system with tens of millions of users and all the rights and privacy regulations that will complicate such a system.

Following the debate over the last twelve months, I still see nothing that gives me any confidence that our plans for a UK national ID card or ‘entitlement’ card will achieve any real security objectives beyond wasting another billion pounds or so of taxpayer’s money. As a society, we need to stop, take a deep breath and then revisit the identity proposition with real consultation and open debate, not the hurried urgency and insistence that nanny is right and everyone else is wrong.

Rather than offering crumbs of comfort to a government hell-bent on delivering a badly-considered solution to a pressing economic and security problem, organisations such as the CBI, the IOD and others should be putting their weight behind a common sense call for a moratorium on the project, otherwise I believe that the UK will find itself with a half-boiled solution that achieves very little and that we will live to regret.


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