5 December, 2004: Someone had blundered

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So, that ID Cards Bill, eh? And I'm sorry to keep banging on about this, but -- joking aside -- it's bloody serious.

Just to dispose of one point, David Blunkett has been in the news a lot lately for other reasons. For instance, I happened to see a copy of the godawful bloody Express the other day, which had a headline reading something like,

David Blunkett
Is he fit to serve Britain?

... to which the answer is, ``no, but not for the reason you think.'' The stock answer to questions about the Home Secretary's private life is, of course, ``it's none of our business; I just wish he'd think the same about ours'', and I'm going to stick to that formula. It's one that the Prime Minister's Official Spokesman endorses, after all:

The Prime Minister said that senior Ministers were entitled to a private life, so long as they continued to do their job.

You can read the Bill on-line; it's substantially the same as the draft. If you haven't looked at either, it's probably worth your while to do so to find out what you'll be made to do before you're summoned to appear at some Capita office to have your irises scanned and all that jazz.

First, to dispel some myths. The government claim that the scheme is voluntary; that you will not be forced to produce an ID card to gain access to a public service to which you are entitled (e.g., to see your GP); and that you will not be forced to carry an ID card nor be required to present it to a police officer or other official on demand.

The first two claims are false. Section 6 of the Bill permits the Home Secretary to force anyone he wants to register for a card (subject to a vote in Parliament, but those wankers will vote for anything, as the passage of various panicked acts after September 11th 2001 shows); section 15 is advertised as preventing the government from making access to services conditional upon presentation of a card, but doesn't apply to people who have been forced to register. So the Home Office can say, ``right, time for everyone to get an ID card'', and suddenly you can be forced to produce one every time you go to the doctor.

Every time you the card is checked, the occasion will be recorded in the Register, for perusal by an extensive list of government bodies (see s.19 of the Bill).

The third statement -- that you will not be forced to carry a card nor to present it on demand -- is true, but according to the Home Office irrelevant. They believe that the `biometric' which will be used on the card is perfect; that is, that each individual can be reliably looked up in the database by scanning their irises or their fingerprints or whatever. They believe that the effect of carrying a card for presentation on demand can be achieved by giving police officers biometric scanners. (As I've remarked before, I expect this to be a godawful cock-up. The Home Office will hand out copies of the National Identity Register on DVDs or something, since they probably won't be able to make a wireless data network that's actually reliable enough for use in this application. Expect to download your copy of the NIR via the peer-to-peer network of your choice about as soon as the thing is implemented in 2008.)

Even more bonkers, the government's Regulatory Impact Assessment suggests that you're quite likely to be asked for a card when you go to the shops, so unless you're a total ascetic you may have to carry the fucking thing at all times anyway.

(It's also worth remarking that the Impact Assessment doesn't consider anything other than direct, monetary costs in its cost/benefit analysis. It doesn't, for instance, measure the effect upon civil liberties. It also -- as usual -- makes the mistake of assuming that the programme will reduce identity fraud. I guess writing these things isn't taken very seriously.)

It's worth pausing for a moment to consider what the government are up to with s.6 of the Bill. The relevant bit reads,

(1) The Secretary of State may by order impose an obligation on individuals of a description specified in the order to be entered in the Register.

The idea here is that the Home Secretary can require, for instance, anybody who is an eeeeevil foreigner, or a fox-hunter, or Jewish, or whatever, to register for an ID card if he wants them to. Neither the Bill nor the notes explain what the fuck this is for -- to me, it looks as if they're not even trying to not look like crazed authoritarian fucknuts -- but the implication is that this power would be used only to make everyone register. So that's OK then. Because, after all, governments never use powers they're given for any but the originally-stated purpose.

(For the avoidance of doubt: David Blunkett clearly isn't a Nazi, and neither are any of the rest of the present government, so far as I know. But as they keep saying, nothing they do can bind any future Parliament.)

Actually, there's quite a bit of this ``not even trying'' going on. Hilariously, they haven't even fixed s.12(4) in which

The things that an individual may be required to do under subsection (3) are--

(a) to attend at a specified place and time; [...]

-- this is the same as in the draft, and they haven't even bothered to add `reasonable' as many responses to the consultation suggested. Presumably if some bored Crapita employee does send out a notice of the form,

You are required to attend the summit of Mt. Snowdon at 0300h tomorrow morning so that we can take your fingerprints; failure to attend will be punished by a civil penalty of 1,000. Do not pass `go'.

the courts will eventually tell him to go fuck himself, but we have to wait to find out.

2(5) is even better -- here, the Home Secretary is given the power to correct errors in the Register, but is freed from the duty to do so. I'm not really sure why the Home Secretary -- who, it should be said, seems awfully keen on putting all our personal information in his database -- wants to be able to keep wrong information in there, but he's giving himself the power to for some reason.

(No but seriously.... One effect of the National Identity Register is to make it impossible to -- for instance -- give new identities to informants who are threatened by the criminals or terrorists against whom they have given evidence, since if everyone in the country is identified on the Register by an iris scan, and the criminals in question have a photograph of the informant, it will be trivial for them to locate him and kill him. It is possible that the Home Office believe that this is undesirable and that 2(5) is a loophole that they've inserted to try to make such false identities practical again. It won't work, of course -- if they get their way, having an inaccurate ID card will be so fucking inconvenient that informants will probably accept the risk of being murdered simply to avoid the hassle -- but it would be nice to think that they're making an effort.)

Elsewhere we have been reassured that the information stored in the Register will be of a limited nature and that, for instance, you will not be required to give a sample of your DNA for recording there. This too is a lie; while the current -- and hardly inextensive -- list of things to be recorded does not include genetic information, s.3(5) allows the Home Secretary to, without giving a reason or requiring the approval of Parliament,

modify the information for the time being set out in Schedule 1.

i.e. to add or (much less likely) remove things from the list.

Elsewhere, the government have avoided the temptation to add safeguards to the legislation to in any way soften the trainwreck about to engulf us. I (and presumably many others) pointed out in consultation responses that the existence of a unique identifying number in the National Identity Register will make identity theft much easier and more dangerous (the government lie that their scheme will make identity theft harder!). I wrote,

Frankly I have no idea how you would go about fixing this. If you insist on having a single Register with a single primary key, theres probably nothing that can be done; you just have to put up with increased identity fraud. An alternative would be to issue cards locally (as in many European countries) and ensure that any number assigned to an individual identifies the card, not the person. The card numbers won't be a lot of use to third parties (as they will change when new cards are issued every few years) and so third parties will not be attracted to using them; this removes this particular opportunity for fraud. (It would also make the scheme cheaper and more reliable, since it remove the single point of failure which the national Register constitutes.)

An alternative would be to try to keep the identity numbers secret. I donbt really see how this could be managed, though, unless there are no unique numbers on the card at all. Since the draft Bill isn't tied to any technical solution, I doubt it would be possible to incorporate this safeguard, so we're back to square one.

As a workaround, the Bill could create an offence of ``using a number from the Register to identify a person in another database''.

Needless to say, these bozos haven't done any of those things.

So, in summary, it's going to be a disaster, as designed. My suggestion? Start looking for countries to flee to now, before the queues get too long.

But while you're still here, please take a moment to read the Bill and NO2ID's useful FAQ; you can still register your support on their petition; and if you're in Cambridge this Monday (6th December) please come to the meeting of the Cambridge group in the Old Spring on Chesterton Road at eight o'clock.

And the obligatory holiday photo:

Ominous garage advertisement, Devizes, Wiltshire

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