Thursday, November 23, 2006

Against ID cards?

For me, the acid-test that most 'anti' lobbies fail is their ability to answer the question "what are you in favour of then?"

I'm not suggesting that every proposal should be met with a coherent and workable counterproposal on day one. But some evidence of a debate would be nice.

Take ID cards: This debate seems to generate a lot more heat than light. The starting point for many people appears that we have a fairly satisfactory settlement around privacy at the moment. When pressed, those same people will acknowledge that this is not really the case.

Any fule kno that The Man, with a bit of time and energy - would probably be able to piece together your movements, phone calls, personal finances and transactions, and use it in evidence against you. CCTV and imaging software combined with other commercial data can complete a detailed (in my case, tedious) picture. Put together with similar data about alleged associates of mine, then this could provide the kind of info that the Stasi would have envied. And if legal failsafes continue to be eroded and a more pernicious government were to succeed this one, this could form the thin end of a wedge.

Personally, I'm just as worried by the way that non-state actors can access this information. The Man isn't always The Man From The Ministry.

So, with ID cards, while all of my instincts tell me that, as a scheme, it should be opposed, I can't think of any other way to assert privacy rights over my identity. Unless it is defined in a robust and secure way, then we have something that is actually worse than the state having a monopoly of power. We have a situation in which anyone with a budget and a few lawyers can know anything they need to about me.

Sure, privacy campaigners will say that they can keep fighting on all fronts without any consolidated personal ID to protect. But that hasn't been the case so far. Generally, most of us don't seem to be able to identify and stop the initiatives that continue to cause our privacy to leak further. Or when we do, the utility - say, of having a cashpoint card, a mobile phone, e-mail or an Oyster card - over-rides our objections. The slowness of legislative processes mean that the law can provide little protection either.

As it happens, I'm inclined to think that ID cards may, eventually, have a similar appeal to the general public as mobiles / cashpoints / Oyster Cards have. Having one would probably save us all a lot of time and grief.

The man from the ministry who is in charge of this project says:

"Maybe we should start arguing the case that ID Cards will reduce the threat of the Surveillance Society and help safeguard civil liberties."
Maybe he has a point. I just doubt that this has entered the government's thinking yet. The first part of that sentence provides the clue:

"Maybe we should start arguing the case that..."

My mama always told me, "Son. Beware of post-hoc rationalisations."***

But if we are opposed to ID cards, what should we be in favour of instead?

(Via Europhobia)

*** This is a lie. She just told me to get to Mass on Sundays.


Unity said...


The problem with the government's system is not the card themselves but the database behind it.

Get an ID card and you get an ID card number that is disclosable (and recordable) by anyone to whom you have to provide your ID, not just in the public sector but in the private sector as well.

It is the means by which every single piece of meaningful personal data relating to you will eventually be tagged with your unique ID number, which is, to go all JRR for a moment - the one (database) key to rule them all.

I think you know enough about IT systems to see where that leads.

We coould have, instead, a zero knowledge proof-based system which verifies identity without disclosing any personal data, especially the unique ID number. That would be supportable, but not the montrous system that the government is currently constructing.

Igor Belanov said...

One of the main problems with ID cards is that they just seem to be another Blairite quick-fix gimmick. Surely nobody sensible seriously believes they would stop terrorism and reduce crime? The most likely eventuality is that the old-fashioned stop-and-search problems would be resurrected.

Paulie said...

Two comments? Is that all an ID card thread buys you these days?

What is blogging coming to?

Unity/Igor, I think that you are both sidestepping the issues here. This is what I think some of those issues are:

1. I think that sensible people DO think that ID cards will stop crime. My limited understanding of anti-crime measures includes the 'tipping point' argument. Stop graffiti and fare dodging on NY public transport, and mugging, anti-social behaviour and aggressive vagrancy go with it, etc.

It's a reasonable argument that I've not seen comprehensively trounced yet by those liberals that lack muscularity.

2. ID cards would probably add an additional cost and complexity to terrorism. The public (reasonably)think that ID cards will reduce terrorism, because of a variation on point 1 above - it would create an impression of a more controlled society. So the public need to be given a credible alternative by anti-ID card campaigners.

3. The public (and, in this case, me) think that ID cards have upsides. Convenience, reducing the easier forms of identity theft, the ability to establish an authenticatable 'reputation' for good behaviour / honesty etc. The convenience argument has another side here. I'll usually argue for aggressive progressive taxation. If ID cards make government more efficient, (and there are plenty of reasons to think that this will be the case), I'll surely be on firmer ground in doing so?

4. If you believe in a high generous social safety net, you will open a newspaper every day and find your position undermined by the tabloid overstatement of 'benefit fraud'. I suspect that any government that could make a minor, visible reduction in this kind of fraud would be able to make the case for a much more generous welfare settlement. Maybe I'm being naive here? But maybe I'm not 100% wrong. In which case, there is another argument to be had.

5. Benefit fraud is one thing. Tax fraud is another. Perhaps an ID card will help reduce tax fraud and make progressive taxation more viable? (Yay!)

6. As a left-libertarian (NB NOT an Individualist) I think that small-scale initiatives are important. That social capital is undervalued. That 'reputation' and the trust between individuals is an important asset that would be strenthened if people could invade each other's privacy a bit more.

Is it possible that one of the problems with the liberal settlement is that 'we want it all'? We want privacy AND accountability. As an example, the e-bay business model would work much more effectively if there were an authenticatable form of personal identification?

Now, I acknowledge the downsides. Igor's 'open society' type objection is a good one.

What really bothers me about this is the way that the argument polarises, when really, the blogosphere has the ability to discuss the underlying issues as a preamble to any debate on a specific policy. At the moment, we do things the other way around.

I just don't think that this will always be the case. And that is a very good thing indeed.