Only, when you read the Bill itself, it's not quite as clear-cut as that. Sure, obtaining and carrying a card is optional, but becoming part of the database isn't. If you apply for a passport or driving licence from 2007 onwards, your details will be entered into the database, whether you like it or not. It you try to avoid it, you will be slapped with a £2,500 fine (in a civil case, because Mr. Blunkett doesn't want "clever people" becoming martyrs), plus it doesn't matter anyway, as the Bill gives the Government power to add you to the database without your consent (and knowledge, I suppose). But you don't have to carry a card! The Jack Straw camp won something there, didn't they? Well, no, because although you aren't required to have the card, the police will have the power to take your fingerprints, scan your iris, or attempt to match your face up to the database. The opposers can say they won a concession, and Mr. Blunkett gets his way. Everybody's happy.
In order to make the case for identity cards, the Government is falling back on that old stand-by, British xenophobia. Identity cards will prevent illegal working in Britain. No-one has explained how yet. Currently, in order to get a job in this country, you need a National Insurance number (the equivalent of a US Social Security number), which is provided by a department of the Government (at the moment, I think it's the Department of Education and Employment). Britain has a thriving black economy, where migrants are employed for laborious jobs, with no questions about NI numbers asked. Are we really supposed to assume that once everybody has one of these shiny pieces of plastic that the people who organise these things are going to throw their hands in the air and go home? Or, just perhaps, they don't really care if people don't have the correct papers; as long as the workers get to the meeting point at 4am and work for fifteen hours in a remote field pulling lettuce so that Asda can shave a penny off the price, they're quite happy?
Then there's the claim that it will cut down on illegal benefit, thus appealing to the Thatcher-generation - if we could just be rid of those scroungers on the dole, this country would return to its former glories. But once again, we have identity systems in place already; surely it would be better to spend the vast quantities of money about to be spent on ID cards on improving these systems and communication between various Government services? Besides, the largest part of benefit fraud is people lying about their circumstances, and an identity card isn't going to make that disappear.
Those have been the two main approaches that the Home Secretary has been using for the past few years to get support for his idea. But two and a half years ago, he added another one to his list: terrorism. By having identity cards, we would be safer. That many of the WTC/Pentagon hijackers had proper papers, and that in Spain, with its compulsory card scheme, the recent Madrid bombing was carried out by people with valid cards doesn't seem to faze the Home Office. It's because they don't have Mr. Blunkett's Infallible Biometric Devices, which, to hear him talk about them, will cut down terrorists at a stroke and make whites whiter than white to boot. But more on them later.
The problem, recently highlighted by security expert Bruce Schneier, is that identity cards don't tell you if a person is a terrorist. All they can do is give you some confidence that the person is who they say they are. Which is nice, but it's rather useless to know that Colin Fothergill is Colin Fothergill. What you want to know is whether he's got anthrax in his pocket, and a piece of plastic can't tell you that. The money would be better spent improving our intelligence services.
The Bill makes much of the amazing powers of biometric information, treating it like a silver bullet that can slay even the mightiest spectre. They're being rather disingenuous with the truth. The schemes currently being trialled involve a combination of face recognition, iris scanning, and fingerprint data being stored in a database and on a smartcard. Foolproof detection, the Government wants us to believe. This isn't the whole story.
Facial recognition is the weakest method being used. A recent study by the US Government's National Institute of Standards and Technology revealed that current software will fail to recognise a person and their picture taken 18 months ago, in just under half of all attempts. And a change of 45˚ in angle of the two pictures renders the software useless. For £3bn, we should expect something a little better.
Iris-scanning is better. In another test, iris-scanning managed a correct match rate of 94%. Which is good, but still means that six people in every hundred are going to have problems. And although a the iris is supposed to be unique, it is not static. It changes throughout your life, and people with cataracts, macular degeneration and other eye problems will experience rapid changes in the make-up of their iris. Making the biometric less useful than it initially appears. Also, some people (including the blind Mr. Blunkett) cannot have iris scans for medical reasons, so the all-powerful database will have information holes even as it is being built.
Fingerprints! Everybody knows that fingerprints are unique. They're always right. Except, they might not be. And, just to be helpful, the Department of Justice doesn't really want to investigate further, in case they have to start turfing people out of prison in an election year.
The three infallible biometrics that the Home Office wants to include are anything but. They are useful in conjunction with other detection skills, but they are not a panacea, and should not be presented as such.
Then there's the practical side of things. This is going to cost £3.1bn, financed by an increase in the price of new passports, from £42 to £73, and driving licences to £69 from £45. Rather expensive, but that way avoids the other option which was to charge everybody in the country £35. However, this projection neglects to mention one detail: every IT project in the history of government has been over-budget, It's just the nature of software development. This is the biggest IT project that the country has ever embarked on. It will require the construction of a database that needs to hold the information of 60 million people, information which is very changeable (people will always be moving house). Furthermore, this needs to be the most secure database in the country, for it is only useful as a authentication mechanism if everybody has faith in its truthfulness. Plus, there's the cost of supplying equipment to the people who will check against the database. This is going to cost a lot more than £3bn.
Finally, just who gets to check us? From the Bill, it appears that most branches of Government, not just the police, will have access to the database. We're promised stringent precautions on such access, including a National Identity Scheme Commissioner who will oversee all access. This provides some solace, although you shouldn't get complacent; there are commissioners that oversee telecommunication surveillance and the intelligence agencies, and there are no cases on record where a complaint has been upheld. In the event that a complaint is upheld, I'm sure that Mr. Blunkett, if told no, would back down, and not attempt to change the law simply because something didn't go his way.
"it is obvious that the police now, as a matter of routine, demand the production of national registration indemnity cards whenever they stop or interrogate a motorist for whatever cause. Of course, if they are looking for a stolen car or have reason to believe that a particular motorist is engaged in committing a crime, that is one thing, but to demand a national registration identity card from all and sundry, for instance, from a lady who may leave her car outside a shop longer than she should, or some trivial matter of that sort, is wholly unreasonable.— Lord Goddard, in Willcock v. Muckle, 1951; the judgement that led to the dissolution of the Identity Card scheme used in World War II.
This Act was passed for security purposes, and not for the purposes for which, apparently, it is now sought to be used. To use Acts of Parliament, passed for particular purposes during war, in times when the war is past, except that technically a state of war exists, tends to turn law-abiding subjects into lawbreakers, which is a most undesirable state of affairs. Further, in this country we have always prided ourselves on the good feeling that exists between the police and the public and such action tends to make the people resentful of the acts of the police and inclines them to obstruct the police instead of to assist them
They ought not to use a Security Act, which was passed for a particular purpose, as they have done in this case. For these reasons, although the court dismisses the appeal, it gives no costs against the appellant."
Identity cards are an unnecessary expense for this country; they will not make us any more secure, they will not destroy the black economy, and they cannot be as infallible as the Government wants us to believe. The opposition to the Home Office's plan is being coordinated by STAND. On their website, they have links where you can fax your MP to register your opinion on this issue. Please use them.