The ID Card Bill And Some Of The Lies You’ll Have Heard About It
edited: Wednesday, October 04, 2006
By Jacob Newton
Not "rated" by the Author.
Posted: Wednesday, October 04, 2006
Become a Fan
The ID Card Bill And Some Of The Lies You’ll Have Heard About It
According to the wisdom of Yes, Minister, every new government, sooner or later, is presented by the civil service with a proposal for an (admin intensive, budget increasing) identity card scheme. Whatever the problem the government faces, the ministers are told that a national ID card would solve it. Not just a subject for comedy, this is also borne out in the real world. We were finally rid of wartime ID cards in 1952, but a new scheme has been touted every few years after that. In 1974, despite the IRA bombing campaign, Home Secretary Roy Jenkins rejected a mooted scheme, considering it a waste of money. In 1978, the Lindhop Committee on Data Protection proposed a Universal Personal Identifier, but this was considered to be a “considerable threat to privacy, and perhaps the freedom of the private citizen.” In 1988, Tony Favell MP tried to introduce a Bill to introduce a card to counter the threat of hooliganism and crime. It was rejected with 172 votes to 114. Schemes were considered in 1989, 1990, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996, all rejected due to cost, privacy and effectiveness issues1.
In a queer bit of circularity, Blunkett introduced the current identity card scheme as a means of testing people for entitlement to services, so preventing benefit fraud. The fact that, as he is now perhaps too aware, most benefit fraud does not consist of people lying about who they are, but what they are entitled to, doesn’t matter too much to the Government as, if it goes ahead, the scheme will be self-financing. That is to say the government’s saving will be funded by public expense. Each problem the card has been said to address, terrorism, getting into cinemas, identity fraud, has been shown as largely insoluble by the introduction of the scheme, and where it may make some kind of marginal impact, that impact will only come when we hit compulsion at the magic 80% threshold. As we don’t know when that threshold will be reached, those choosing not to renew their passport before they will be forced to get one with a voluntaryish ID card won’t see much if any return on that investment for a long while yet.
Listed here are various misrepresentations and outright lies perpetrated by a Government suspiciously desperate to force the current overpriced and functionless scheme on a public dangerously close to sleepwalking into its own frightfully British elective dictatorship.
Lie 1. The ID Card Bill
The first lie you will have heard is the name of the bill itself. The title places all the emphasis on the little bit of pricey plastic the Home Office wish to lend you, and not on the vast and intrusive database the Bill also requires. This is the database that will record every interaction that you ever have with any aspect of the Government. A database on this level of intrusion has never been attempted before anywhere on the planet, which sadly accounts for much of the lust the Government has for the scheme. Because the scope of the database is potentially limitless, it is likely that the number of functions for which cards will be necessary will increase over time, making the card into an internal passport. This will of course be literally true should the Government decide at some point in the future to make the card compulsory to carry. It has also been suggested by critics of the scheme that following agreements with America there is the potential for the NIR information being shared with American Intelligence.
Lie 2. We Lose £1.3 billion and growing through Identity Fraud
The much quoted figure of £1.3 billion a year comes from "Identity Fraud - A Study", a document published by the Cabinet Office in July 2002. Close scrutiny of this document shows that, were a national database to be created, it would only serve to save £35 million of the £1.3 billion. All of that £35 million is represented by identity based benefit fraud, itself alleged by the Home Office as one of the key areas where savings are to be had. Slim pickings for such an expensive scheme. Furthermore the claim that it is growing is laughable inasmuch as it is the only study that has been undertaken, offering an idea of what the situation was like in the summer of ’02, but little else2.
Lie 3. The National ID Scheme is a cheap and logical extension of the new ICAO requirements for passports.
The ICAO guidelines with which we will soon have to comply insist on our passports carrying a digital photograph of the passport’s bearer. Out of all the puzzling subterfuge currently wafting out of Whitehall over the National ID Register, this is the bit that stinks the most. The scheme is not in any way an extension of the new passport requirements. It’s impossible, even, to see how it could be. The new guidelines are hardly any different from having a photo stuck to the passport, and certainly no more intrusive. For the government to take this as a lead to create the farthest-reaching citizen database ever attempted is utterly ludicrous. Indeed, were the ICAO to make it a necessity to have such a database, it would in effect forbid citizens of many of the poorer countries from traveling abroad. Most countries would simply not be able to afford such a thing. More importantly, they would not wish to force their citizens to comply with one.
Lie 4. “No more than £30 a card”
So said Tony Blair at the press conference prior to the reading of the Bill3. According to the Bill people will be charged when they are leant their respective National ID Card by the Passport Office, and that this will take place when they are sixteen. This means that the user end income is less than £1.8 billion. The overall budget for the scheme, going by the Home Office’s own enigmatic estimate is £5.9 billion. So where is the other £4.1 billion coming from?
Tony Blair has a long history of making statements in press conferences and landing various offices of the Government in trouble, having to turn his rhetoric into workable and affordable policy; it’s a constant theme as far as UK Foreign Policy is concerned4. It is likely that Blair’s £30 cap is no different, considering Clarke had made the empty promise of capping the cost of the card at an as yet undisclosed figure. Following the Bill passing its first hurdle, the Home Office have been scratching their heads trying to work out where the rest of the money will come from. What is clear is that it aint coming from the treasury; Brown has insisted the scheme be self-financed. It is likely then, that Clarke is turning to the private sector to foot the £4.1 billion (or £17.4 billion if you go with the LSE's more pessimistic figure).
Over the past few weeks HO representatives have suggested that biometrics could be used to confirm the identity of people starting jobs. This would, therefore, require either an HR manager and the new recruit to visit a passport office and validate their identities; or businesses owning or leasing their own readers. Either way, there will be a surcharge attached to the process. Previous statements from the HO have suggested they would charge businesses £750 for an NIR search. Bit steep, especially considering all that is being proved is the right to work, something currently taken care of by the existing National Insurance Card. It won’t prevent illegal workers, because they’re already working for illegal employers – these companies simply won’t comply in the same way that they don’t comply now with systems already in place. What is more, smaller companies won’t be able to afford to comply. But then, when have small businesses held any sway over Labour?
The same HO representatives have also suggested that NID cards could be used for access to work buildings. Presumably this would rely on the rather poor Chip & PIN functionality of the card, making it probably a more expensive and no more secure system than the existing proximity cards employed by many companies.
Does the Home Office really believe that businesses are going to see any need to buy into the above schemes5? Presumably both are just symptomatic of the way in which the HO is beginning to question its own fag-packet figures and realising that the cash will still have to come from somewhere. Surely if the scheme were to go ahead your NIR number would be linked to your National Insurance number, already required to work in this country, and as such any kind of biometric scan would be needless - effectively another of those "trivial searches" they're suddenly beginning to worry about.
They've been quick to point out that private sector companies won't have anything beyond confirmation access to the NIR, which means they expect businesses to query the NIR every time an employee goes through particular doors in the business's premises (or that they lied). Surely, biometric searches or no, this would mean a colossal workload for the NIR network. Note that even at this late stage, there doesn't seem to be any kind of joined-up thinking coming from the HO in relation to the NID scheme. We have one set of "experts" desperately looking for ways of funding the NIR, and another set of "experts" trying to turn the scheme from the unworkable mess it is in currently to something technologically feasible. Pity that both efforts seem to be pulling in completely the opposite direction.
Lie 5 “The card will only need to be renewed once every ten years”
There are three issues with regards how often cards need to be renewed. The first and foremost is biometrics. Biometric information changes over time, further weakening an already rather dubious technology6. The Home Office experts tell us that as a result of this, we will need to reregister only every ten years. However, it being an untested technology, and there being no improvement to biometric change what with it being a human characteristic, and not a characteristic of the technology itself, we should also be lending an ear to those who say that biometrics change much faster.
The second factor is how quickly forgers can create copies of cards. In order to baffle forgers the Japanese government recently spent three months redesigning the ID cards they require foreign visitors to carry. The forgers had professional-level copies on the streets within four months of the real cards going into circulation7.
The third factor is the workload that renewal will require. Currently the passport office is just about keeping up with the 6 million annual renewals. This is all set to change with the introductions of face-to-face interviews, but it seems likely that the ten year renewal requirement comes not from anything as central as the technology of biometrics, or the security of the system, but of the existing Passport Office infrastructure. Passports must be renewed every ten years, therefore NIR biometrics must be renewed every ten years.
Lie 6. “The NIR will allow for speedier checks with the Criminal Records Bureau”
Presumably one of the reasons being given for the speed with which CRB checks could be increased would be the biometric angle, but then why the need for taking everyone’s biometrics and then setting up a list of those biometrics belonging to people with Criminal Records? Why not just take the criminals' biometrics? That way you’re not searching for biometrics against the entire adult population of the United Kingdom, finding a match and then checking the NIR entry, just looking through the much smaller number of known criminals, and if the test is negative, assuming the individual in question isn’t among their number. Also given the fact that a check until recently was only necessary for jobs in sensitive positions, this is a problem that Labour has artificially created. And why are the checks so slow, considering the CRB database system has just been updated? Would that be another overpriced, underdelivering Labour IT scheme?
Lie 7. “The NIR will allow citizens to check their NHS records online.”
Another baffling statement from Blair’s press conference. He explained that the £12 billion NHS database, much less ambitious than the £6 billion NIR, can’t be made accessible online at the moment due to concerns about security and data protection. With the NIR scheme in place, however, citizens will be able to gain access to their records. But how will the scheme affect how we prove our identities to a website in the comfort of our own home? Again it would seem that biometrics won’t have much of a part to play in this, unless PCs start coming with iris, fingerprint and facial scanners fitted, and I’d imagine that would be something the Home Office would be quick to control, as it would make illegal access to the NIR all the easier. As far as can be determined, the NIR won’t improve the security of the NHS database in a way that will allow individuals to log on to their own medical records. Indeed, if the system requires you to enter your NIR PIN then it could make the scheme less secure than what would exist if access was made available now through the employ of a separate, user-changeable, (asymmetrically encrypted) password.
Lie 8. “We’re called on to prove who we are on a day by day basis...”
No we’re not. Unless they mean at ATMs (which if they only require the NIR PIN will be no better off than existing bank cards), or at work (more of that later). If the NID scheme goes ahead then it will guarantee that we will be called on to prove who we are more and more, and for more and more trivial reasons. The NIR are selling us tight shoes so we can benefit by taking them off. Wartime ID cards were brought in as a means of identifying members of the opposing forces yet before they were abolished were being used as a measurement against bigamy. The fact that this was the only requirement for them did not stop people being arrested for not carrying their papers.
Lie 9. “...the scheme will merely provide an easy way of doing this.” Andrew McNulty
The HO is already talking about downgrading most checks to a chip and PIN style of verification. Chip and PIN, itself a move from credit card companies away from biometrics towards other means of verification, will mean that anyone who has lifted a card and has the PIN will be able to access most services with impunity. The extent to which this is possible was recently the subject of a talk by Dr Emily Finch of the University of East Anglia8. She and a male colleague ran a rough and ready experiment in which they paid for goods with each other's cards. They were never questioned as to their identity, the shop assistants not even picking up on the fact that the cardholder was of the wrong gender. Of the ID scheme, Finch says "the more people rely on the production of a particular piece of identification to verify identity, the less vigilance people will exercise themselves - that's the problem. If there are ID cards we will trust them to be unassailable."
Lie 10. The scheme will reduce identity fraud
In an era where individuals who have a mind to can hack their way into the defense systems of the United States of America and ground various networks for a period of weeks, the government wish to protect our personal information by storing all of it in a single place. What this will do is create a honey-pot, a one-stop shop of personal information that, once retrieved, can be sold to nefarious organisations (terrorists, child pornographers, government sanctioned bogey-men) who can then use it to commit identity fraud. In America the social security database was given a colossal overhaul and each individual was given a social security number. This number was rapidly added to various other databases that made use of it as a handy unique identifier. When something like that takes place, a vast virtual database is created, with the identifier becoming a key with which a vast amount of information can be gathered together. In America, just as will happen here should the NIR go ahead, benefit fraud increased dramatically as a direct result.
Lie 11. The scheme is not insisting on compulsion to carry
Compulsion to carry is a logical extension to the scheme. The HO is intent on compulsion to register. It will only be possible to police this if people are required on request to provide their card or biometric information at some point, and many will decide it prudent to take their card with them wherever they go, to potentially save them the bother of going to a passport office, or more likely a police station, to prove that they are on the register. Furthermore the non-insistence only exists inasmuch as the Bill doesn’t currently require it. As we know from past experience, a Government assurance is only good for the current term. Given that the funding for the scheme seems non-existent it is highly likely that compulsion to carry will be introduced “to reap further benefits from the scheme” and reap the financial benefits of new civil offences. In Holland, where compulsion to carry was recently introduced, the first 50,000 fines have been issued, totaling£1.7m. The cash registers ringing in the Netherlands will be giving the British Government’s treasury-starved scheme some very serious ideas.
Lie 12. “I’m looking forward to the debate.” Tony Blair
The Bill has so far enjoyed very little debate in the House of Commons. And the select committee passed less than a handful of the 200+ amendments put before it. The costs of the scheme can’t be debated because the calculations are a secret and the contracts have yet to be awarded. Correspondence between citizens and New Labour loyalist MPs or Home Office representatives have taken the form of rebuttals, not open discussion9. Andy Burnham went so far as to label all those protesting against the scheme as criminals – serious allegations indeed!
Lie 13. “It’s worthwhile if it saves just a single life.”
What does £5.9 billion buy you? How much chemotherapy? How many organ transplants? Forgive my opportunism, but how many avian flu vaccines?
Lie 14. We’ve learnt from previous mistakes concerning IT procurement.
Except that despite the delays they’re sticking to their previous timetable. And they only seem to be listening to companies keen for the contract, not the vast majority of IT professionals that claim the scheme may not work, and certainly won’t come in on time and within the budget. What is more, the fact that the scheme is a bill looking for a purpose, there can be no clear indicators of success for the scheme. Clarke is already downgrading aspects of the scheme as the reality of the cost and timeframe become clear.
Lie 15. If you’ve nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear
Except it’s not you that decides whether you’ve something to hide, it’s the government. Governments do things like repatriate natives so that they can lease their island to America10, or infiltrate anti-apartheid groups11, or set fire to farmers stock and then delay when it comes to paying them their compensation. Governments can put people on no-fly lists without even telling them they’ve been put on no-fly lists, or why. We know that, for every ten mad conspiracy theories, there is an eleventh that is absolutely true . We know that Governments are capable of atrocity, and so we ought to be extremely careful with how much information we allow the Governments to keep. We ought to be even more careful when it becomes likely that the information will become flawed, or disappear all together, as has happened with previous schemes. The DVLA database is fantastically flawed, the CSA database is fantastically flawed, the Tax Credit database is fantastically flawed, the CRB database is fantastically flawed. If the ID card will become as useful as the Home Office suggests12, and when it becomes our own responsibility and not the keepers of the database that the information held is correct, the errors that will creep in will have dramatic and troubling effects. We won’t need to have our identities ripped off by criminals, as the Government will be messing up our lives well enough on their own.
Lie 16. Yeah, but most people who worry about civil liberties are just being paranoid.
We are currently under the yoke of a government who are intent on detaining people for three months without charge, on monitoring every vehicle in the country, on opening a file of passive surveillance on every individual in the country, on impeding the right to protest, on removing trial by jury in certain cases, on introducing past charges brought against defendants and of labeling children as having criminal tendencies at the age of three (which will be recorded for ever on their NIR, making a handy bias for the police to take on board). Regarding the NIR scheme and its pantomime road show, people have been arrested prior to protesting, or have been otherwise removed when leafleting against the scheme. We have a Prime Minister that has lied in the house, and treats the possibility of his impeachment, let alone his accountability, as a strange joke he cannot understand. A New Economics Foundation13 think tank recently showed that only one in forty British voters have a fair share of power in elections. At the last election the Liberal Democrats received 22% of the votes, but only 11% of the seats. Democracy and liberty are falling apart at the seams, and claims of paranoia and delusional conspiracy theories are partly to blame. The fact that those who are concerned with such outmoded things as civil liberties, justice, the democratic process, are perceived as cranks is one of the greatest and most dangerous travesties in this country.
These are just some of the lies currently being employed in an attempt to win over not just us but the MPs who are quite rightly questioning the wisdom of the scheme. The Home Office recently ended their road trip with a visit not to a public place, but to the Home Office itself for an audience of MPs, designed no doubt to offer further reassurance to the MPs it had previously lied to in order to get the Bill past its second hearing. Promises were made for amendments that have not happened, which means we should be in a ludicrous position where the Bill has fewer supporters after the select committee than before. The present Government, obsessed by its place in history and saving face at any cost, will not concede; it will merely tell bigger lies and make bigger threats.
1 Identifying Risks: National Identity Cards, Wendy M Grossman, 19th January 2005.
3 Monthly Press Conference, 28th June 2005.
4 See Blair’s Wars by John Jampfner for more on this.
5 for the scheme is as low as 25% according to the London Chamber of Commerce.
6 Iris scans fail more frequently if you've brown eyes. Finger print scans fail more frequently if you work with your hands. Facial scans are notoriously poor as lighting, expression, aging, shaving and baldness all tend to cause problems. Basically as long as you're a blue eyed office worker with no beard and a healthy head of hair, you'll be fine. If you're an ethnic minority, old, disabled then expect life to get a little more frustrating than it already is.
9 This has certainly been my own experience. I have asked my MP to vote against the Bill, but she has chosen to forward all my letters on to the Home Office and forward me their replies. She takes the “mandate” position, that as it was in the manifesto she ought to vote for it, despite the scheme only being discussed in a single sentence, and certainly not outlining the scheme in question. However, if it was in the manifesto that she jumped off a bridge...
10 See Lying In State by Tim Slessor for more on this and other Whitehall deceptions.
12 and given the fact that many of the uses will be artificially created by introducing the requirement of proving ones identity where before there was none, it will be.