Saturday, 22 March 2008

The Politics of the ID scheme

Instead of wasting hundreds of millions of pounds on compulsory ID cards as the Tory Right demand, let that money provide thousands of extra police officers on the beat in our local communities. Tony Blair

Here here to that, but oh dear Blair the flibbertigibbet came to change his mind so disastrously on ID cards—a war here, an ID card scheme there, it all seemed like a good idea at the time, but was he really in command of all his faculties one begins to wonder…This post attempts to explore some of the political background to the UK’s current ID scheme to put Thanet residents more clearly in the historical picture. Bear in mind that there is a lot more to the ID scheme than meets the eye…

The idea of re-introducing ID cards in the UK was first raised back in the 1990s by some members of the Conservative Party. At that time, the idea seemed to be that ID cards would help tackle crime, a perennial theme of pro-carders. A committee was duly set up to investigate the possibilities of introducing a card. Roger Gale, Thanet North MP, was on that committee, and basically it concluded that the introduction of mandatory ID cards would be costly and not necessarily the solution to the problem of crime that some people seemed to think, though some kind of voluntary card might be considered. Eventually, however, the distracted Conservatives lost enthusiasm for ID cards, and the policy initiative ran out of steam.

The 9/11 terrorist strikes on the United States in 2001 were, as we all know, spectacularly successful, and could have been even more so. The attacks cast a long shadow over the millennium, and would have a profound affect on the domestic and foreign policies of the US and the UK for years to come. The US responded aggressively to the attacks, and the UK government backed the US to the hilt. The “War on Terror” had begun. And at exactly the same time, the democratic rights and civil liberties of the citizenries of both countries slowly began to erode with a concomitant corruption of thought and language at the highest political levels—systematic torture and abuse now went by the innocuous-sounding term “rendition”, for example.

It was within this larger security/political context that Blair’s Labour government revisited Identity cards around 2002, at first tentatively. They had a model set up and running on a small scale in the form of the Citizen Card, a smart card carrying a photograph and fingerprint data that all asylum seekers in the UK had to register for as of 2002. Within the year, the government announced the decision to build a database for a compulsory national identity card, initially citing the need to combat fraud as its motivation. What is so amazing is how fast this decision was arrived at, and how the government moved from disinterest to total commitment to a maximum, high-tech, centralised-database model ID scheme so quickly. Initially cautious, David Blunkett became politically invested in the scheme, and its most powerful sponsor.

In relation to ID cards…I think there is no longer a civil liberties objection to that in the vast majority of quarters. There is a series of logistical questions, practical questions, those need to be resolved, but in my judgement now, the logistics is the only time delay in it, otherwise I think it needs to be moved forward. Tony Blair

On April 2, 2004, the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, uttered the words quoted above in parliament, words that are very significant. They are a prime example of “framing”, or of a politician construing reality to fit in with the reality they want; of determining the parameters of legitimate debate. Who on earth says there is no longer a civil liberties objection to that [the ID scheme] in the vast majority of quarters? Answer: Tony Blair: “I think...” He cleverly primes the ground: “logistics” is the only “time delay in it”, by inference the only issue worth debating. A discussion based on serious political principle was being suppressed. Otherwise, the government did indeed think it needed to go forward and nothing has changed in the years since; the government simply ignores any discussion based on civil liberties objection, which were actually growing in many quarters in 2004, and continue to grow today.

In 2004, a select committee was set up to investigate the quality of the government’s draft ID cards legislation. The committee, weighted in favour of the government, also stated that they did not emphasise principle: “…identity cards should not be ruled out on grounds of principle alone: the test should be whether the costs are proportionate to benefits…” Hilarious really: spend ten billion pounds for almost no benefits, but I’m jumping ahead…the point is that a momentum was gathering behind the ID legislation, and those sponsoring it were dismissive of all discussion based on principle (obviously because the scheme was so totally flawed in principle). Nevertheless, the committee did state that “the draft bill goes wider than is necessary to introduce a simple system to establish and demonstrate identity”, an understatement if ever there were.

By mid-2004 the government got it into its head to go ahead with its plan to introduce the Identity Cards draft Bill into parliament, basically rigging the consultation process which was neither open nor sustained. Considering the proposed legislation represented the biggest and most profound change in the British constitution since the 1832 Reform Act, the level of consultation was a joke. A major propaganda effort went into gear, Blunkett stating that the ID scheme “will deliver real benefits in particular making a significant contribution to tackling organised crime, terrorism [and] illegal immigration.” The Home Secretary did not produce a shred of evidence to back up his sweeping claims. The “Identity Cards Bill” was published on November 29th 2004, and a slightly amended version re-introduced into the new parliament on May 25th, 2005.

That such a Bill could have made its way into parliament at all is a sad reflection on the state of UK democracy in the aftermath of 9/11. Everyone was angry, no one was thinking straight, bureaucrats and IT companies stepped up promising a brave new world based on the ID scheme, and MPs, with many exceptions, went to sleep at the wheel. The Bill, which of course became law the following year after a tug and pull in the upper house, was just astounding. The true and frightening nature of this most ill-thought out scheme was crystal clear to anyone who read the Bill: this wasn’t about identity cards at all; it was about a system of surveillance of the whole population.

Briefly, the Bill called for the setting up of a National Identity Register (NIR) on which all citizens must register. In addition to the normal type of personal information one has on a passport, citizens would have to hand over up to fifty “registrable facts” that would include biometric data such as fingerprints and iris scans. This information would be held on a "secure" centralised database, and one’s identity could be checked against it by government, and by accredited private sector institutions. But all sorts of people in government would be allowed to access this information without the consent or knowledge of the citizen: the police, the security services, the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise etc. In addition, the “Secretary of State may provide information without consent to a public authority where provision is necessary in the “public interest.” British society would be reduced to a series of numbered records on a database, information about us would be freely shared across government, and the audit trail of checks made against the database would be kept for inspection, forever. You would get an identity card: “voluntary”, but of course eventually you won’t be able to do anything without one, and every time you do use it a record would be added to your file on the database. Needless to say, the intrusiveness of this identity scheme was totally unprecedented and went far beyond anything operating in any other country of the world. When the Identity Cards Act was passed in 2006, Britain went from being a model democracy, of a kind, to being a model regressive democracy overnight.

Since the Act was passed in 2006, progress towards setting up the NIR has been going on apace behind the scenes, and the government has not changed its tune since making the decision to go for a centralised database-linked compulsory Identity card scheme in 2003. Indeed, and despite some very good expert advice from many quarters—the CBI, Qinetiz, Microsoft, Liberty, the Law Society, and the London School of Economics, to name but a few—the basic parameters of the scheme have not changed one iota, and the government merely tries to deal with the question of “how”, ignoring “why” or “whether”—the latter important questions put out of the frame by Tony Blair in 2004. Government and Whitehall officials act like nothing is wrong, and its business as usual despite its loss of the personal information of every family in the land on two discs at the end of 2007.

What we are concerned with here is not to go into detail about what’s wrong with the government’s ID scheme—it’s just plain wrong in principle period, but we’ll get onto a whole bunch of specific problems in future posts—but to examine the government’s political strategy and its ability to get the scheme implemented. After all, there is still a long way to go, and so far the government has not been able to meet its initial roll-out schedule. This is not surprising, because in addition to the scheme’s basic wrongness which is getting harder to camouflage, it also presents the government with potentially insurmountable practical political difficulties.

One obvious practical difficulty is persuading the public that the ID scheme is a good idea. So far, it has been relying on a smokescreen of propaganda that feeds off of people’s fears, such as the terrorism, crime, and immigration factors. But the government has not been able to win over the intelligentsia, and the very fact that an organisation like NO2ID exists—with over 40,000 members nationwide and growing—shows that there is significant disquiet about the ID-database scheme. The government likes to refer to opinion polls to suggest that it’s on the right track, but on balance when people find out what the ID scheme is really all about the government will face increasing and vigorous resistance—that is what all polls together indicate when analysed more rigorously.

Another difficulty, from the government’s point of view, is actually getting 60 million people registered on the NIR in the first place. The costs and practical difficulties of doing this are enormous, but actually the real problem was always political. It is one thing to pass an Act of Parliament, it is quite another to get the whole of the British citizenry to line up and have their fingerprints taken. Not very nice: not a vote winner. The government has had no real chance to work this one out because in its (very) limited trial of biometrics it did not meet the kind of resistance it will when the population as a whole gets inconvenienced—all those mismatches, false negatives and false positives are going to be a nightmare for everyone, and not a few are in for an epiphany. Of course, as we now know from leaked documents, the government is adopting “salami tactics”—it is planning to force people onto the NIR group by group. Most recently, we learn they will start with foreign residents (this year) and airport workers (next year). Can’t wait to see how that goes.

My prediction is that the ID scheme is not going to be implemented smoothly, if at all, because of the enormous amount of friction that is soon going to be generated by its roll-out. Many of us may be put onto the NIR by stealth—when getting a passport, or doing something else like buying an air ticket, the government will register us on the database without our consent anyway—but lots of people are not going to take kindly to being fingerprinted or handing over a vast amount of personal information to an Identity official. Of course, the government is giving itself a generous amount of time, not to mention an unlimited budget, to achieve its objectives. If enough money (our money folks) is thrown at it, some kind of centralised ID system could emerge, but it will be almost useless, extremely dangerous, and totally undemocratic…sometimes changing your mind is OK.