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.

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