ID cards: there’s more than money to lose

Yes, the UK identity-card scheme is costly and clunky, but the main reason to oppose it is in the name of freedom.

Patrick Hayes

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With the UK government’s accounts seriously in the red, opposition politicians have been queuing up to cite the unpopular and costly National Identity Card scheme as top of their list of New Labour initiatives to be culled. However, unless the argument against this intrusive scheme is won on the grounds of defending privacy, rather than shoring up the state’s balance sheet, the demise of ID cards could be a hollow and temporary victory for freedom campaigners.

The National Identity Card Scheme is part of a larger project to develop a National Identity Register, which will pool both biometric and more traditional sources of information about all individuals in the UK. The data will be shared with an estimated 200 bodies within government and 40,000 organisations within the private sector. The total cost of the project has been budgeted at £4.7billion, 10 per cent of which will be spent on the ID card element.

Initially, New Labour attempted to make a case for compulsory ID cards as a crucial method of combating terrorism, an argument discredited by the admission that the bombers who attacked London in July 2005 wouldn’t have been stopped even if an ID card system had been in place. Moreover, the ID card system in Spain did nothing to prevent the 2004 terror attacks in Madrid. Arguments that ID cards would stop illegal immigration and counter crime were found to be equally baseless.

To save face, the Home Office retreated to an optional scheme, appealing instead to arguments about how the cards would benefit the individual by preventing identity fraud. These arguments are tenuous, too, especially in light of ‘Discgate’ in 2008, when HM Revenue and Customs lost two discs containing 25million people’s personal details. There’s no point having a government scheme to counter fraud if the government cannot even be trusted to keep your personal details secure.

Recently, the government has fallen back on the argument that ID cards make life more convenient. As Home Office minister Meg Hillier put it, ‘with tough new legislation being put in place clamping down on underage drinking, it will be more important than ever for young people to have access to a universally accepted proof of age’. But this sounds like little more than a way of introducing an ID scheme on the sly. As the state increases the frequency of times you need to prove your identity, you will increasingly find it more convenient to have an ID card.

The Tories say the ID card scheme is monolithic, expensive and ineffective. Chris Grayling, the shadow home secretary, described it as ‘an expensive white elephant… It’s been rejected as a travel document, it’s been rejected as an identity document in a bank, and it’s still costing us hundreds of millions of pounds to set up the scheme. It’s high time that ministers faced reality, and scrapped the whole project.’ This sentiment is echoed by Chris Huhne of the Liberal Democrats, who argued that ‘only the most profligate of governments would lavish billions on this programme in such a deep recession where hard choices are needed on public priorities’.

Yet despite the lack of a convincing argument by the government for introducing ID cards – and despite the economic arguments against it – the scheme is still being rolled out. Now, ID cards have been introduced on a voluntary basis for 18- to 24-year-olds in London with strikingly little fanfare in the media or beyond. Even a camera-friendly protest by campaign group NO2ID, with the usual giant ID cards and men in boiler suits and masks, outside the Home Office last week went unreported. As Guy Herbert, general secretary of NO2ID told me, ‘The government is trying to bore us into accepting ID cards, making the new roll-outs as routine as possible.’

Herbert has a point. The roll-out is certainly not a response to popular demand. A pilot for the voluntary ID card scheme in Manchester has only achieved a modest take-up, with just 2,700 cards in circulation in pilot regions at the end of January. Public opinion has also shifted considerably against ID cards in recent years, from a large majority in favour in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the US, to support now dropping to below 50 per cent. According to an online poll for the Manchester Evening News last November, 96 per cent of Mancunians were against ID cards.

For those concerned about the implications ID cards would have on our privacy, abandoning the scheme for budgetary reasons alone is not so much winning the argument as putting it on ice. A decision on economic grounds leaves open the possibility that ID cards could still be introduced when there is a return to more prosperous times or if they are found to be at such a late stage of development that they are too costly to scrap. The former home secretary, Jacqui Smith, has pointed out that cancellation clauses in suppliers’ contracts would cost £40million alone, leading her to be accused of ‘deliberately making it as expensive as possible for a future Conservative government to scrap ID cards’.

Equally, arguments about the ineffectiveness of ID card technology to secure people’s data are based more on distrust in technology, and the government’s competence in managing it, than on opposition to the principle of an ID card system in itself. There is, arguably, good reason to be concerned about data security: an experiment by the Daily Mail following the introduction of ID cards last year found that the ‘unforgeable’ ID cards could in fact be cloned and reprogrammed with false data within 12 minutes.

Those who argue against ID cards on economic and technical grounds tend to accept that it is reasonable for the government to be checking up on us, and only this particular scheme is flawed. The idea that the state should have no right constantly to demand that we confirm who we are is rarely aired. Where it is, there is often a rather paranoid tone to the discussion. For example, in his book The Bully State, the right-wing libertarian Brian Monteith argues: ‘The state will ask to be given more controls, more powers of entry, more, more, more.’ ID cards are seen as merely the start of a slippery slope. ‘I may sound fanciful and alarmist, but there would be little difficulty in placing a microchip in the back of our hand, for example’, says Monteith. Tory leader David Cameron has raised the spectre of Nazi Germany when attacking ID cards, and philosopher AC Grayling has resorted to similar scaremongering, imagining a situation where ID chips are placed in our earlobes, which are then vulnerable to being hacked off by data thieves.

We do not need to imagine such future Big Brother scenarios – our privacy needs defending here and now. Such kneejerk, panicky reactions also ignore the practical, everyday problem of proving one’s identity in a variety of normal transactions, a concern which politicians have tried to pander to in order to justify ID cards. They say ID cards will facilitate the process of proving who we are. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more we need to prove who we are, the more we need ID cards. We do not need a clunky database containing every facet of our personal information, nor should we give the state carte blanche to demand that we prove who we are whenever it wants us to. As Guy Herbert puts it: ‘There probably are good reasons to have sensible identity management systems, but there’s no reason to hand central control to the state to be the third person, the piggy in middle, of every human interaction.’

While the future of ID cards currently looks uncertain, unless the argument for privacy and freedom from state intrusion is won in the public arena, the setbacks for exponents of the database state are likely to be temporary at best. Opposing ID cards should be part and parcel of encouraging a pro-freedom outlook in society, not a means to help the government balance its books.

Patrick Hayes is one of the producers of the Battle for Politics public summit taking place on 20 March 2010.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild saw the ID card scheme as a sign of the political class’ identity crisis. Brendan O’Neill looked at liberty after ‘Discgate’ and interviewed Chris Atkins, who has been vocal in his opposition to ID cardsMick Hume said Gordon Brown had lost it in The Mail. Dolan Cummings examined the surveillance society.  Or read more at spiked issue Liberties.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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