14 December, 2004: Papers displease

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Back to ID cards yet again. (Sorry.) In the comments to my last piece, Colin Teubner asks, among others, the question,

First, is it the mere idea of having a National Identity Register at all, complete with some sort of scheme for matching people to it, that worries you, or is it the inevitably poor implementation of it, or both?


The ID cards scheme is likely to be a disaster on financial and systems-integration grounds, but even if it worked as intended -- I admit that I am inferring its intention from clues left in the Bill, consultation documents and various utterances of David Blunkett and ministerial cronies, since its purpose is as yet unexplained -- I would oppose it.

At root, I don't think that it's the government's business to tell me who I am. The government are our servants, not our masters, and we oughtn't to let them forget that. Just as -- see Saki stories passim -- the Edwardian upper classes assigned names of convenience to their servants, David Blunkett intends to assign names of convenience to us. There's no good reason to let him do that, and I don't see why we should.

In more detail: the conceit of the ID cards scheme is that each person should have only one identity; that that identity is given them by the state and recorded authoritatively in the National Identity Register; that each person must notify the state of any changes to it, and such changes will be accepted at the discretion of the government; and that that failure to comply as prescribed by the law will result in various and novel penalties intended to result in compliance with these rules.

I should digress here to say that there is a reasonable question as to what I -- and the Home Office -- mean by a `person' and an `identity' in this context. This question may seem semantic, pretentious and woolly, but it touches on a difficult philosophical point. I try where possible to avoid difficult philosophical points and now is no exception. So: in the context of the current scheme, a `person' means whoever can produce a given set of `biometric' identifiers (probably fingerprints and an iris scan; it is expected that if any of these biometrics change -- for instance, if you scar your finger -- you will obediently report that change to the government); and an `identity' means a name, address, and other personal details which appear on documents (such as passports, identity cards, etc.) issued by the government and recorded in a database (namely, the National Identity Register).

The next step in the scheme is, of course, to require that services provided by the government (the government, being our servant, are compelled to provide services to us) and services provided by private individuals and corporations, are provided only to people who can prove that the government has given them an identity, and that those services are provided only for that identity (so that, for instance, you would not be able to hire a car or open a bank account in a name different from the identity you have been given). (The Home Office's laughable Regulatory Impact Assessment suggests that shops will want to check customers' ID cards using their `Chip and PIN' terminals for almost any transaction....)

The proposed scheme will also record each such check of identity in its database, so that a record of when and where your identity was checked -- whenever you go to the doctor, or your bank, or a shop -- is built up.

So, what, beyond nebulous philosophical objections relating to my personal notion of identity, is the problem with the ID cards scheme? Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear, right?

Another way to put this question in this context is to ask, for instance, `what kind of person would want to have more than one name, or to change their name?'

Well, 35% of terrorists do, apparently, as Home Office ministers and officials are fond of repeating when asked the purpose of their brainchild. (I think we are expected not to mind being blown up by the other 65% who do not play by their rules.) Other people who sometimes go by more than one identity or change their identity include criminals laundering money, adulterers, benefit fraudsters, informants in high-profile criminal cases, victims of domestic violence, released convicts notorious enough to require protection from a vengeful public, persons of multiple nationality, refugees, married women who wish to take their husband's name but not lose their professional one, persons with nicknames, travellers and other people who live itinerant lifestyles, expatriates, people who run businesses as sole traders, investigative journalists, undercover detectives, spies, celebrities wary of the public eye, sufferers from embarrassing medical conditions, people who need to travel regularly to mutually antagonistic countries (such as Israel and Muslim countries, or, in days gone by, South Africa and many other African nations) and so on and so forth. You can probably think of similar categories.

Obviously not all of these people will be tremendously inconvenienced by the ID cards scheme -- I don't expect people to necessarily give up their nicknames because they differ from the names on their cards, though woe betide you if you are addressed by another name in the presence of a Police officer who knows only your official name -- but many will. And some of these categories are obvious and legitimate targets of law enforcement (though there's no evidence that ID cards will actually make it any easier to detect and prosecute them). Most, however, are not. The National Identity Register is an attempt to impose a simple and unbending set of rules on something which is fluid and anything but simple: how people are known and know themselves.

(Note that the Regulatory Impact Assessment prepared by the Home Office essentially ignores this question.)

Now, in a modern state we must exchange measures of freedom for measures of safety, convenience, material wealth or other desirable things. So we are not permitted to drive our cars too fast, bicycle without lights during the hours of darkness, swindle the ill-informed with prohibitively expensive loans, own guns, pollute the atmosphere, etc. etc. The principle is fair enough, though everyone argues about the details.

In this case we are being asked to accept an enormous amount of regulation -- regulation which will intrude into every aspect of our lives -- for no demonstrable benefit and a variety of costs and risks. None of the arguments made for ID cards and a population register are really credible: they won't stop crime, they won't stop terrorism, they won't stop benefit fraud, they won't stop illegal immigration, they won't stop identity theft, ...; and they bring numerous risks, which I have written about more-or-less interminably before.

(Another digression: one other argument which is sometimes made -- often by people who work or have worked in government, after they have trotted out the preceding arguments -- is that a population register will make government `more efficient'. This vague and comforting notion -- really code for `sacking civil servants' -- seems to ignore the fact that those government services which deal with individual, identified people, such as doctors' surgeries, benefits offices, etc., already have databases of their `customers'. Making records in these databases correspond to records in the National Identity Register is likely to be expensive and basically purposeless. There are excellent arguments for, for instance, connecting different hospitals' patient records systems together, but those databases already exist. The National Identity Register is not relevant to this problem, except that it might make solving it more expensive. A further claim is that the Register will make it easier to plan for the future provision of services by providing accurate information about the distribution of the population; it's true that the government can be rubbish at planning for future service provision, but again the National Identity Register is unlikely to help much. It won't be a good way to get population estimates -- even the census missed millions of people -- and anyway most planning of services needs more information than just how many people there are in an area, what they're called, how old they are, and what their fingerprints look like. For instance, if you want to know what facilities a new hospital needs, you need to know about individuals' health -- not planned to be recorded in the Register; if you want to know where to put new roads, you need to know where people travel -- not capable of being recorded in the Register; etc.)

Now, many people will not accept the whole of my reason for objecting to ID cards. You might argue, for instance, that my notions of personal identity are too libertarian (or even, dare I say it, libertoonian) for the Dangerous World In Which We Live Today (as Fox News might put it). Or you might argue that the government waste money on foolish and expensive boondoggles such as the Millenium Dome or the war against Iraq all the time, and while this one does appear to be a very foolish and very expensive boondoggle, why not let them have their fun? They have to spend our money on something, after all -- it's not like they're going to give it back, is it?

That's all fair enough; I'm only making my own case. But I would characterise the pro-ID-cards position as either being unthinking; or, worse, unconcerned by a loss of liberty, or by a massive waste of public money, or by the new material risks which the scheme will bring. Surely there's something there for everyone to oppose?

(Apologies: no holiday photo this time. It's late and I'm tired.)

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