This afternoon, I attended a speech by the Minister for Identity, Meg Hillier MP, hosted by the Social Market Foundation. The address was titled “Building a national identity service for all” and presented much softer casefor identity cards, compared to the terror-focused arguments of a few years back. (I will link to the full text of the speech when it is published). I am told by her office that the speech will not be available.
The new reasoning centres around access to public services. Many people, the poorest people, do have any form of identification at all: no passport, credit card, driving licence, or even household bills in their name. ID cards, says Hillier, will provide a solution for these people, guaranteeing that they can quickly access the public services they need. The idea that a robust and trusted form of identification can be a tool for empowerment is something that the liberal left, instinctively against ID cards, needs to consider.
The approach is not without problems. Hillier says that people may miss out on a job, because employers are legally required to check you have the right to work in the UK, and inadequate identification might hinder this process. Likewise, she says people may miss out on renting a flat, or be refused a bank account, due to lack of ID. This may be so, but the hurdles that ID cards are designed to solve are actually regulations put in place by the government! Why not lower the hurdles? Why not create a new, entry-level type of bank account, with less overdraft and laundering possibilities? That way, ID barriers and credit checks could be safely reduced (perhaps some economists amongst our readers could comment on the practicalities of this, or whether such accounts already exist).
Discussing the technicalities of the new card, Hillier mentioned the ubiquity of the iPhone and other modern gadgets that can run any number of applications. “Why not put a chip in the phone?” she asked. After all, it is the chip that is the important bit, not the waterproof plastic. Quite right… but the wags will soon ask why we can’t put chips in our foreheads, too.
During the Q&A, I made a point about the tension between efficiency (which Hillier was keen to trumpet) and privacy. Perhaps privacy lies somewhere in the inefficiency of systems talking to each other? If it is actually a bit inconvenient to check someone’s identity, then those in a position of power over us are less likely to do so on a whim or a prejudice. David Eastman has a beautiful short essay on this point:
If someone is trying to track me down, then someone must think I really am worth the effort. Its when computers talk to other computers that liberty disappears. Because a computer can correlate countless bits of data and create new records that would take many humans exponentially longer to do. And that gap, or grace period, is actually where anonymity lies, or did.
Unfortunately, the Minister said this view was “bonkers”. I fear this attitude has more to do with the inarticulacy of the person making the philosophical point, than with the underlying idea. Anti-ID card campaigners are genuinely concerned that the system will be abused by officious and power-hungry government officials. They are concerned that companies will start accepting only ID cards as suitable identification for giving people work. If I was refused entry to a nightclub because I wasn’t on Facebook, or if I was refused employment because I was not on LinkedIn, then I would be rightly indignant. If ID cards become so efficient as to be ubiquitous, and opting out becomes ever more impractical, then we do have a civil liberties issue on our hands. It is a very specific point, and pedantic, perhaps, so I can see why the Minister would get a bit exhasperated. But still, Meg, “bonkers” is not enough of an answer. Those arguing for ID cards need to address this issue, or risk the anti-card campaigners making this inference: That ID cards are designed to be ubiquitous, and designed to become so essential that opting out becomes a practical impossibility. If this is the underlying motive, then the government should at least be honest with us.
The other hardy perennial in the case for ID cards, is that since we already have Oyster Cards, Nectar Cards, PayPal and Amazon accounts, we have already surrendered a lot more information about ourselves than would be stored on a database. This argument is fundamentally weak – We can choose to completely opt-out of the Nectar card or Oyster system if we wish. Facebook has privacy issues of its own, of course, but you can delete all your friends, tags, apps and photos if you want. Can you opt out of the ID card system, once you have signed up for it?
“No” says The Minister. Once you’ve tied your finger prints to your name and identity, its on the system forever. This ensures that no-one else can put their finger-prints to your name and steal your identity, Jackal-style. This seems sensible… but it is nevertheless a fundamentally different process to signing up for any number of user accounts. Ministers should stop using the Nectar Card example as an argument for why ID cards are benign.
Hillier acknowledged throughout that the government has presented a “muddled message” on ID cards and that Labour should “take responsibility” for not putting out better arguments for the new system. A case made on empowering the poor is a much better approach than one based on fear and xenophobia… but the government needs to do more – a lot more – to convince skeptics that it is not trying to introduce something much more comprehensive and far-reaching in the long term.