David Howarth explains his opposition to ID cards

January 26, 2005 8:48 AM

One of the reasons few people trust Tony Blair's policy on Iraq is that he has given too many different and contradictory reasons for it. Links with Islamist terrorists? None came to light. WMDs then? But there weren't any of those either. So let's try Saddam Hussain's human rights violations. But Blair himself said before the war that Hussain could stay if he gave up his (non-existent) WMDs. And so it goes on. The government's lack of candour makes people rightly suspicious that the government is hiding its real reason for the war.

The same goes for identity cards. The government constantly shifts its ground. Whatever the issue of the moment, the government says that ID cards, backed by an enormous database containing everyone's biometric and other details, are the answer - only for its argument to collapse at first contact with the facts.

The government originally claimed that ID cards would prevent benefit fraud. But it turns out that the vast majority of benefit fraud has nothing to do with identity. It is simply people lying about their activities and situation. The cost of ID cards (more than £3 billion in set up costs alone) dwarfs the £50 million that might be saved even if ID cards did stop identity fraud (which many experts doubt). It never seems to have occurred to the government that the banks do not insist on biometric cash point cards backed by giant databases and card readers in every branch, even though they would prevent some fraud if they did. They would do so only at disproportionate cost. It also never seems to have occurred to the government that having one single giant compulsory ID database creates an enormous risk of something going wrong, a risk that having multiple forms of voluntary ID does not share.

The government then added in to its menu of arguments stopping 'health tourism' - the practice of foreigners coming to Britain illegally to exploit free NHS treatment. But the highest estimate for the cost of health tourism is £200 million a year, and to prevent it would require every doctor's surgery, hospital and perhaps every doctor's bag in the country to contain networkable biometric card readers. It would also require doctors and nurses to spend time trying to get the readers to work and to spend even more time dealing with the inevitable errors and failures. If doctors and nurses do not do this policing task (and who else can on home visits?) other people will have to be employed to do the job. And that is just the cost to the NHS. What about the cost to people excluded from NHS care by mistake?

Illegal immigration came next. ID cards would stop it, the government claimed. But migrant workers will get in anyway as temporary visitors and then work, as now, entirely outside the tax and benefit system. ID cards and passports with biometric data might stop the 'reused passport' scam (in which genuine passports are posted abroad and changed to fit an illegal entrant), but only until someone figures out a way to forge such passports. In any case, stopping that scam does not justify the creation of an enormous database with everyone's details on it. All it needs is a passport with biometric data. The database, which is the most expensive and risky part of the plan, is irrelevant.

So the government turns to the claim that ID cards will stop crime. But how does that work? Are we to believe that burglars desperate for money to pay for a drug habit will say to themselves 'If I am caught and I happen to have my ID card on me, it will take the police a few seconds less than now to find my criminal record, so I'd better stay at home and watch TV'? The idea is ludicrous.

So now the government says, 'ID cards will stop terrorism' - even though Spain has compulsory ID cards and they did not stop either ETA's terrorism or Al Qaeda's. ID cards might be useful to prevent terrorists changing their identity as they travel around, but that only works (and then only temporarily until the terrorists' technology catches up) if every country in the world lists its entire population on a single, foolproof and entirely secure database, an absurd fantasy even for the present government. In any case, why should terrorists travel around when they have the internet and telephones? The money for ID cards would be better spent on improvements to the security and intelligence services.

So we do not know the real reason for the government's obsession with ID cards, or with the gigantic national identity database that will accompany them. The cost is extraordinary and the benefits obscure. Perhaps there was a glimpse, however, of what is really going in the speech of the Labour MP for Cardiff Central in the recent parliamentary debate on ID cards. He was worried by findings that countries that lack social and ethnic uniformity tend to have lower levels of government spending on social security benefits. Diversity, he believed, breeds lack of solidarity. His solution? Identity cards. First, he thought having an official card will make us feel more unified (a rather silly idea - does the ubiquitous store loyalty card make us feel more unified?) Secondly, and, in my view more significantly, he thought that ID cards and their supporting database will increase social solidarity by guaranteeing that undeserving people can be excluded from public services. He wanted to create a situation in which only 'we' can obtain public services and in which 'we' are those people whose identity cards grant them access to public services.

The state's control over the giant database and the ubiquity of the ID card would mean that people who were by mistake not identified as one of 'us' would lose their access to all governmental services and benefits. The government's reach would also extend into the private sector - controlling access to employment as part of social security and immigration control and financial services as part of the 'wars' against terrorism and drugs. No education, no health care, no social security benefits, no state pension, no lawful job, no bank account - all because of one administrative error. That is the trouble with over-centralisation. It makes small problems into big problems. Moreover, the government's record with large-scale information technology projects is woeful: the Passport Agency, the Benefits Agency, the NHS, air traffic control ... the list goes on and on. The idea of a faultless government IT system is laughable.

It might get even worse. Those who have seen the film 'Changing Lanes' will have realised what damage one can do to others by maliciously changing their records. People's lives can be ruined. It rarely happens, of course, but no database is entirely secure from malicious interference. The important question is this: Why multiply the risk by centralising the government's databases into one all-purpose database? Why not stick to multiple databases and make the malicious hacker's job more difficult?

ID cards will be an expensive and pointless fiasco. Their main function is to give the Labour Party a glib answer for every passing problem, an answer that is inevitably simple, elegant, and wrong. The Liberal Democrats are suggesting spending the money on extra police instead. That is a good suggestion. In truth, the money would be better spent on almost anything government does.

David Howarth

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