22 January, 2004: Running on time?

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There is a rather silly piece in the Guardian's `Online' section by Michael Cross: (my attention was drawn to it by `Spy Blog', which also has some discussion of it)

Anyone arguing that Britain shouldn't repair its railways because a future regime might transport undesirables to death camps by train would be dismissed as a nutter. Yet apparently intelligent people trot out the same argument against proposals to repair the state's outdated data infrastructure.

These self-appointed guardians say we should oppose the proposed national population register because of the use to which a totalitarian government might put it. Likewise identity cards and, with better reason for concern, DNA databases.


But they [ID card opponents, referred to as `pygmies' in Blunkett fashion] should be honest about what they want, which is the end of the state's role in health and social care.

To start with, the analogy is stupid; railways are genuinely useful as well as being potential aids to totalitarianism. ID cards aren't useful, for reasons rehearsed before.

Moving on, I note that Cross's previous piece was spent bemoaning yet another government IT cockup. Probably his `Public Domain' column on public-sector IT issues gets a lot of mileage out of that sort of thing. Yet he apparently thinks that not only will ID cards work as designed (and presumably at acceptable cost), but that they will provide an `underlying joined-up infrastructure' for `e-government'. If that were true, Cross should be able to explain how and why, rather than just stringing together a few buzzwords. He hasn't managed, which isn't a surprise, given that the government also seem clueless on the purpose of the scheme. (Glossary: here, `infrastructure' means `a list of people', and `e-government' means `a website run by the government. `Joined-up' means `expensive' and `underlying' probably doesn't mean anything.)

And the idea that people who are opposed to ID cards `[want] the end of the state's role in health and social care' is probably the most ridiculous straw man I've seen in, oh, weeks (not counting the one in the first paragraph of the story). Just to get this straight, ID cards have nothing to do with the state's rôle in health and social care. I'm not sure what ID cards are supposed to be for, but they sure as hell aren't going to help the state provide `health and social care'.

While Cross believes that it's a `bizarre accident' that Britain has no national register of population, and that providing services on this basis is `unsustainable', there's no evidence for either claim. Indeed, our last national register of population (during the War) was hardly abolished by accident, and we seem to be doing a perfectly adequate job of providing services without such a register. While there are many complaints about (say) the NHS, very few of them result from having to do without `a list of customers'. (Ignore for a moment the appearance in the Guardian the claim that beneficiaries of social services are `customers'.)

Also worth reading is this evidence to the Home Affairs Committee from various Home Office worthies, which includes the following classic exchange:

Mr Prosser: Have you considered taking samples of DNA?

Katherine Courtney: No, we have not considered taking samples of DNA.

Mr Prosser: I am not suggesting it.

Chairman: Do not put ideas into their heads, for goodness sake.

Also see questions 70--93, in which the members of the Committee try to find out how much the scheme would cost. You can tell from the fact that they took 23 questions about it that they didn't get a very straight answer.... But, as I've said before, expect the cost to be between £120 and £400 (mostly paid for through general taxation), based on the government's figures multiplied by an `incompetence factor' of between three and ten to account for the near-inevitable overruns in the associated IT project.

Nicola Roche, from the Home Office, also repeated an old claim about the consultation exercise: (emphasis mine)

Nicola Roche: Some people do take a principled stand and in response to the consultation exercise we did get responses from those who do object in principle, but the overwhelming response from the public has been in favour.

Oh dear.

The evidence also tried to obtain information on how the cards would help prevent crime. Roche gave (Q16) only one, tenuous, example:

Yes, I think the first example would be ID theft which is a major component of ID fraud, which are two slightly different things. ID fraud is costing the UK economy about £1.3 billion a year and it is an increasing problem. So having a secure Government confirmed ID, by using the biometric with the National Identity Register, will stop that happening. I think the second example would be the use of multiple identities for money laundering. We estimate that about £390 million a year of money laundered is through the use of multiple identities. So we do anticipate the ID card would bite on that.

Leaving aside the fact that spending what will probably be tens of billions to stop £1.69 billion per year in fraud and money-laundering is a doubtful economy, this rather assumes that ID cards are likely to decrease identity theft. Which is unlikely, since the card and National Register would make it much easier to identify yourself as somebody else as soon as you had whatever unique ID number the database uses. Oddly, Roche was unable to give examples of non-identity-related crime which the card would stop. Terrorism didn't figure in the evidence.

Sadly, it looks like I've missed the deadline to submit evidence to the Committee on ID cards. But it seems that STAND and others have done a good job already, so no matter.

Copyright (c) 2004 Chris Lightfoot; available under a Creative Commons License.