28 January, 2003: Soon, you will be just a number, and it'll probably cost you five quid, too

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I hope that everyone has sent their responses to the Home Office's consultation on `entitlement' (i.e., identity) cards. Here's mine (from a few weeks ago):

I am absolutely opposed to the introduction of `Entitlement' or identity cards in the UK.

As a Czech acquaintance remarked,

Here in the Czech Republic we have ID cards (since Adolf Hitler instituted them for us).

Of course, the actions of the current UK government aren't comparable to those of the government of occupation in Czechoslovakia in 1938--45, and I understand that the government has ruled out the possibility of a card which must be carried at all times and produced on demand.

But that's not to say that a future government might not decide that a compulsory card was, after all, a good idea, and build upon the outcome of this current proposal to implement a more repressive scheme. And in any case, it's clear that the proposed cards are expected to become generally used for identification, with the result that it will become effectively compulsory to carry one. This sort of `voluntary' requirement, effectively enforced by the private sector without appeal to law, could be even more damaging to our freedoms than a real compulsory scheme. After all, the last compulsory scheme was eventually repealed as a result of public dissatisfaction; but that might not be possible with a scheme which has been taken to heart by the banks, utility companies and other powerful actors in the economy.

The consultation document claims that the identity card will help to combat identity theft and other forms of fraud. It is not clear why this should be the case. The document states that every individual will be issued a unique identifying number; it seems reasonable to suppose that the result of this is that all sorts of unrelated organisations will start to use this number to identify individuals, with two consequences:

This is essentially the situation which prevails in the United States where every individual has a `social security number', and identity theft is trivially accomplished by obtaining somebody else's number.

The consultation document also advertises at great length the virtues of `biometric' information for authentication or identification. This is an even worse idea than the card itself. Biometric information is a terrible choice for an identification scheme, because it is impossible to revoke or replace it. For instance, if the card stores a thumbprint and somebody manages to copy my thumbprint and use it to spoof (say) a bank auto-teller -- which turns out to be rather easy with current fingerprint readers, which can often be fooled by a simple photograph of the print -- there is no way for me to get another thumb to replace the one which has been compromised. So victims of biometric identity theft will be stuck with their compromised authentication data.

Nor would it be safe to assert that the introduction of such technology could be delayed `until the technology is mature'. It is inconceivable that future biometric authentication technologies will not be susceptible to some sort of spoofing. Criminals have tremendous incentives to invent ways to subvert authentication devices -- much greater incentives than the vendors of the devices. And, of course, technology is advancing all the time, so an authentication device which is safe and secure today may be trivial to subvert to a future criminal who is using the technology of two or ten years from now.

As a final comment, it is worth pondering this: with what types of states do we associate identity cards? Do we regard them as a feature of democratic states where the populace is free and a tradition of rights prevails; or with authoritarian states whose governments demand the right to peer into the affairs of their subjects lest they take it upon themselves to throw off their oppressors?

No state with an old and stable tradition of democracy and the rule of law enforces an identity card system. There is no reason that Britain -- the oldest and most stable of the lot -- should be the first to do so.

Yours faithfully,

(signed) Chris Lightfoot.

-- the whole thing is futile, of course: we'll get identity cards if Blunkett wants them whether we like them or not, just like anything else the Dear Leader decides. But at least this way I get an MI5 file. Hmm....

Copyright (c) 2003 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.