Beware of card tricks

Wednesday, July 12th, 2006

The government claims that national identity cards will help to counter Terrorism, illegal immigration and ID fraud. That’s rubbish, says Henry Porter, and in fact there is something much more sinister about them - they will fundamentally alter the relationship between citizen and state, and make slaves of us all.

The other day I went to see my publishers in central London and prepared for the usual performance at the entrance, which involves me writing my name, the name of my editor and the time in a book. On this occasion the man asked me to type the details into a keyboard then angled a camera on a stalk into my face. I typed away but held one hand in front of the lens before moving swiftly out of the camera’s field to make for the lift. “Hold on, sir,” shouted the security guard after me. “You can’t go in unless you’ve had your picture taken.”

“I can,” I said, “because you have no right to take my photograph without my consent. And you most certainly don’t have it.”
A week later I was confronted with the same piece of equipment at my gym in west London. Again I placed my hand over the camera lens and to the baffled receptionists quoted the Image Retention Act 2002. There was, of course, no Image Retention Act in 2002, or any other year. That time, they let me in. By my next visit they were waiting for me. The receptionist stood back out of range of my hand and snapped my picture before I had time to react.

To many, my behaviour would seem unreasonable. After all, my picture is taken hundreds - maybe thousands - of times every day in London. But that is not my objection. What bothers me is when someone puts my image, my name, the place and time together. That is information of a personal nature, and is an invasion of my privacy.

I have exactly the same response to the ID card and the much more sinister National Identity Register (NIR), which one day will track each one of us through almost every important transaction of our lives. Emails leaked to the Sunday Times at the weekend suggest that senior civil servants in charge of key aspects of the scheme, Peter Smith and David Foord, have grave doubts about the practicalities of introducing the card. This may be reassuring to some but the argument against this folly must take place on every level. I am instinctively against them, politically against the card and the NIR - and, if it doesn’t sound pretentious, philosophically against them too.

At a stretch, I would carry a voluntary little plastic ID card, because I have no objection to identifying myself when it is my choice. I don’t mind taking my passport along to the bank or showing my driving licence to collect a parcel from the post office - but I am preternaturally against the state forcing me to supply biometric measurements and 49 separate pieces of information about myself to a database which will be accessed by God knows who without my permission or knowledge. I am genetically incapable of submitting to such a process. I cannot do it. I will not do it, and I pray that when the public understands how this scheme will profoundly alter the relationship between the individual and the state thousands more will recoil and say the same.

The government’s arguments in favour of ID cards keep shifting, and the hugely expensive project has been sold to the British public on a false prospectus. The government began by saying it would prevent Terrorism. When that wasn’t tenable, it said it would prevent ID theft. When that didn’t work, it said it would prevent benefit fraud and when that didn’t work it resorted to claiming that it would help control illegal immigration.

So, first of all, Terrorism. The Spanish ID card did not stop the Madrid train bombers and a British ID card wouldn’t have stopped the London July bombings of 2005. ID cards, it is plain, will not deter home-grown terrorists or suicide bombers who are quite happy for their names to be known once they have carried out their attacks for the obvious reason that martyrdom is pointless when it is anonymous. So when that didn’t work, ministers stirred up fears about ID theft as the great scourge of modern society. Yes, it is a problem, but it is nowhere near as large as the government has been making out. In January, the Home Office published a report which said that ID theft cost the British public £1.7bn annually. It turned out that that figure included £395m for money laundering and £504m for the total loss of plastic cards. Thus the figure was exaggerated by a little under 50%.

Rather than stopping ID theft, ID cards are, in fact, likely to increase the problem, because this single unified and trusted identifier will be something that is really worth forging. Already, we hear, criminal gangs have compromised the chip-and-pin technology that will be used. And the new RFID technology - that’s radio frequency identifiers - in place in some passports has been read by illegal scanners at 30 paces. Imagine that gadget in the hands of terrorists or criminal gangs.

In February 2004 the government published a report saying that a campaign against benefit fraud had cut losses by £400m. The report said that the government was on target to slash fraud and error by half by this year, quite an achievement. Then the boasting suddenly stopped. Why? Because the government’s success at meeting its own targets militated against the argument for ID cards.

Like crime, benefit fraud has decreased. But you hear little of this from No 10 or the rightwing tabloid press, because it suits them to keep us in a state of near frenzy about both. And there is something else to remember: in the majority of cases, benefit fraud is not the result of well-organised individuals using multiple identities, but rather people exaggerating their sickness and the extent of their disability. The ID card will do nothing to stop someone faking depression or lower back pain.

And, finally, the ID card won’t stop illegal immigration. True, it will make the lives of illegal immigrants more difficult, but there is little evidence to suggest that it will actually deter people-smugglers and desperate migrants.


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