Saturday, 19 January 2008

The ID-Database scheme-no panacea

Those Thanet residents who think that ID cards might be a good idea have probably been hoodwinked into believing that the scheme will help deal with one or other of the following problems: terrorism, identity theft, illegal immigation and benefit fraud. Unfortunately, the ID-database scheme will not help solve any of these problems, and its introduction is much more likely to make them worse. Here’s why.

The problem of terrorism

ID does not establish intention. Typically modern terrorists are highly organised and use cells of people who do not have a criminal record—so-called “Lilywhites”—in their operations. In the world today there is no link between the use of identity cards and the prevalence of terrorism. ID cards will not deter terrorist activity. Even government ministers have admitted that ID cards will not prevent terrorism.

Terrorism is not new, and but it has now become an overblown bogey invoked to justify infringements on our liberty. The most frightening thing is that a highly trusted form of identity card may actually help terrorists who could steal your identity from the National Identity Register (NIR) database (with a little help from a corrupt insider—think about it.)

The problem of identity theft

Setting up a single, centralised point of reference for your ID will not stop identity theft. As mentioned above, puttting all your information in one basket and trusting it to government is actually very high risk and opens up more opportunities for data-theft, as occurs in Australia and the USA.

Most fraud in the UK cannot be stopped by the implementation of ID cards alone, and a highly trusted form of ID card may be of more use to the fraudster. There is also the problem of identity thieves registering on the ID-database in the personae of innocent others. This only needs to happen a few hundred times and the NIR will become “infected” and no longer trusted. All that information surrendered, all the money spent, and all for nothing!

Biometrics are not reliable and, contrary to what the government implies, can also be forged. On the other hand, your biometrics cannot be replaced, unlike a PIN number or address. Once a fraudster gets their hands on your biometric data your identity will never be secure again.

Can you trust any government not to lose your data? In just the few months I have been back in the country, the current government have successively lost 25m benefit records, 3m car learner’s records, and now 600,000 armed forces applicant’s records. These are just the more spectacular cases you hear about in the media, but actually sensitive data is being lost all the time. All this is absolutely outrageous, but the NIR would contain so much more information about you that could also be lost.

Data theft is a crime that is difficult to prove and difficult to bring successful prosecutions against. The best protection against data theft is not to centralise data in the first place, and to strictly limit access to any data for a limited purpose only. Obviously, the NIR breaks all these common sense rules about security.

The problem of illegal immigration

The problem of illegal immigration—if it is a problem—has a lot more to do with unscrupulous employers than with identity fraud. Foreigners enter Britain with documents of foreign origin, and the Identity card will be no more of deterrent to them than the need for visas and passports. Contrary to what some people may believe, it is not easy for illegal immigrants to obtain benefits in this country; most illegal immigrants are actually working and contributing to the economic growth of this country.

A separate but related issue is that of asylum-seekers who come to this country seeking assistance, residence and benefits. Many asylum seekers are genuine cases, some are not. In any event, asylum seekers must acquire a UK identity from scratch, and the existence of the ID database will not deter them from coming here in any way; they inavariably turn up with no papers at all.

To catch illegal immigrants and others illegally resident in the UK presupposes massive checking of identity cards by police on a daily basis. Inevitably, such checking will become discriminatory and will divide people. Identity cards do not stop illegal immigration in other European countries, such as France, but they do increase the power of the police to make arbitrary checks on the citizenry. Random police checks on British citizens will soon come to be seen as politically unacceptable, as they were just after World War Two.

The problem of benefit fraud

Hardly a day goes by without some sensationalist report appearing in the media about someone fiddling the benefits system. But benefit fraud is only a relatively small proportion of all fraud in the UK, and the proportion of it due to misrepresentation of identity is actually miniscule. Figures for claims under false identity are estimated at £50 million (2.5%) of an (estimated) £2 billion per year in fraudulent claims. Most fraudulent claims are based on false statements about circumstances, and the introduction of identity cards will do nothing to tackle this problem. In the UK the Department of Social Security argued against ID cards on these grounds.

As argued above, the introduction of the Identity card-database scheme is no panacea for dealing with the problems of terrorism, identity theft, illegal immigration and benefit fraud. In the area of identity theft, the setting up of a centralised database with your whole personal story stored on it is likely to become a target of theft, or it may just get "lost." The above mentioned problems are actually separate and highly complex problems to which there are no simple single solutions. Identity cards are not the answer, and in all likelihood will complicate matters greatly, not simplify them. The single biggest group to be inconvenienced by the identity card-database state is the ordinary British citizenry, including Thanet residents; meanwhile, terrorists, criminals and fraudsters will be laughing.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

Inaugural meeting of Thanet NO2ID

Thanet NO2ID will be holding its inaugural informal meeting 7.00pm, Friday 25th January (2008) at the Pascucci café, 14 Buenos Ayres, Margate. The café is located on the corner of the row of Georgian houses that face out over Margate beach near Margate railway station. The café, normally closed winter evenings, is opening especially for us. Drinks and food can be purchased.

The purpose of the meeting is to bring together those people in Thanet who might be interested in joining the local no2id campaign (you could join the national campaign and not be active locally). As this is our first meeting there is no particular agenda, but it is as well to establish a plan of action early on.

At this stage I do not anticipate a huge turnout but this really does not matter. All campaign groups start small, and it only takes a few people, or just even one person, to light a fire. The local press have been informed of the meeting and if we get some coverage this might boost numbers.

Bear in mind the national campaign has over 40,000 registered members, and is growing rapidly—we are not the only ones concerned about the ID-database nightmare. Please make this meeting a date in your diary, and bring a friend along.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Thanet NO2ID meets Roger Gale, Thanet North MP

Thanet NO2ID recently had the pleasure of meeting Roger Gale, long standing Conservative Member of Parliament representing the Thanet North constituency. Of course, NO2ID is an independent campaigning organisation and we do not endorse political parties or political candidates. It is a fact, however, that Mr Gale has a record of opposing grandiose identity-related schemes and voted against the unconscionable Identity Cards Act in 2006, and so Thanet NO2ID counts him as a friend an ally.

It was yet another scheme to collect private information from Kent residents that was very much on Mr Gale’s mind. A government plan to make every town hall send out surveys requesting resident’s private details and opinions, including questions about sexual orientation and ethnicity, was slammed by the MP as “ludicrous”, and invasive and costly to boot. Mr Gale told me he recently wrote to councils in his constituency asking them to opt out of this “voluntary” survey, but he noted that fear of losing central government funding might be behind the high level of participation thus far.

Regarding identity cards, Mr Gale said that when he was on the committee looking into the matter back in the early nineties the conclusion was that a voluntary identity card issued by a regional office, along European lines, might be useful to people. He felt that the current multi-billion pound high-tech centralised bonanza identity scheme was neither workable nor safe, and he opposes it.

Thanet NO2ID applauds Mr Gale’s position on identity cards and looks forward to cooperating with the Thanet North MP on this issue.

The ID scheme and how it will affect you

Recent discussions with various members of the public seem to indicate there is widespread ignorance about the government’s proposed ID scheme, now well on its way to becoming a reality. Not everyone is clueless, but a significant number of young people and, for want of a better expression, working class people remain uninformed about the ID juggernaut that is hurtling towards them. For the benefit of everybody, I would like to briefly outline the proposed ID system, and to explore a little how the scheme will, if fully implemented, affect us all.

Many countries issue identity cards, which serve as a proof of identity. These identity cards typically hold information such as name, date of birth, place of birth, and so on plus a photo of the card holder, much like a passport. So, one way to look at an identity card is to view it as a passport. But in some countries these cards hold a great deal more information about the card carrier, including perhaps fingerprints or other biometric data. Then there are what as known as integrated cards, which not only function as a kind of passport but also give the card carrier access to government services, and allow government to monitor some transactions of the card holder. The British identity card is a fully integrated card and links to all the information that the government will hold on you.

At the present time, the holding of an identity card in the UK is purely voluntary, but the government propose to make it mandatory by stealth; you will need to register for one to obtain a passport in the near future. This is the moment when the ID scheme will affect you big time. To obtain an identity card you will need to bring a lot of documents to an interview and you will be obliged to give the government 50 pieces or more of information about yourself—basically your whole personal history, fingerprints, biometrics etc. This information will be stored on the National Identity Register (NIR), and you will be issued at identity number which will correspond to your information stored on this database. That, in a nutshell, is how it starts.

So what is the big deal here? Getting an identity card clearly involves some time, inconvenience and cost but once I’ve got one I’m in the club, I’m a certified Brit forever, I have my gold standard proof of identity. Well, the identity card is only the tip of the iceberg; the rest of the story is about what the government is going to do with your personal information.

Once collected, your personal information will be put on the NIR and this centralised database will then be accessible by numerous government departments. The NIR will also be linked to other records held on you such as your medical records. In future, parts of or all of your information will be accessible by dozens of government bureaucrats to check on you as you go about making civil transactions. A record of these checks themselves will kept. Although you will be able to access the information held on you, the government will be able to add information to your record in an arbitrary manner without telling you. In short, a kind of file on you is established via the NIR.

The proposed identity card scheme means that your personal information will be given out to people without your permission. The government claims that “safeguards” will be put in place to protect personal information; it will only be given out on a need to know basis, but in fact the Home Secretary can authorise most of the information to be handed out to any government department that claim they require it. The linking of your information on the NIR to other databases, and the widespread access of government departments to your information is quite unusual in world terms—very few governments do this, and those that operate this kind of set up are dictatorships. Incredibly, it will become the responsibility of the card holder, upon penalty of a fine or even a prison sentence, to keep their personal information up to date. No such penalties are in place for government officials who might add incorrect information about you to your record. In future, the Home Secretary can—as if 50 pieces of information were not enough—add to the categories of information that are required to be known to maintain your NIR record. The Home Secretary also has the power to cancel or demand the surrender of your identity card, without the right to appeal, at any time.

In exchange for handing over all your information, which will be wide open to misuse and abuse by government, you will finally get an identity card and passport. The current quoted cost for the combined card and passport is £93. But actually you would have paid with your privacy, and the financial cost of the scheme passed on to you the taxpayer will be never ending.