Saturday, 5 January 2008

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.

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