I suppose it had to happen… finally up pops a blogger willing to mount some sort of defence of the Government’s ID cards proposal.
Actually, I have to say this is a good thing, not just from the point of view of simply having points to debate but also becuase Monjo’s comments – assuming that’s how the author styles himself from his blog – indicate clearly how and why the Government can claim that so many of our fellow citizens seemingly support the proposed ID Cards Bill.
It’s no accident that the focal point for much of the public opposition to ID cards is the Internet, after all it’s here that you’ll find – as you’d expect – a community of technically literate authors and activists, people with the skills and experience to understand fully what the ID cards bill could really means and where this legislation could lead us in future. It’s also no accident that the vast majority not just of bloggers but of the non-aligned technical press and technical analysts are also more or less overwhelmingly against this particular bill. The only industry figures I’ve seen coming out in support of this legislation have been those with a clearly identifiable vested interest – of the members of Silicon.com‘s CIO panel, only the representatives of Newham Council and the Dorchester Hotel spoke up in favour of ID cards.
Richard Steel’s comment – he being Newham Council’s Head of ICT – is particularly revealing of public sector attitudes to this bill when he is quoted as saying:
“We badly need a national standard to link to other citizen-centric systems developments, including citizen identification and authentication, and the national ID card may as well be it.”
I’m sure that on a person level Richard is a nice guy, a fine upstanding British Citizen, but at the risk of violating Godwin’s Law the attitude he displays is one I find rather unsettling and all too reminscent of Albert Speer’s complaint of never having been adequately rewarded while Nazi Minister of Armaments for his dilligence in increasing war production – his complaint being not that he should have been rewarded as a believer in Nazi ideology merely that, as a bureaucrat and manager, he did his job very well. Richard is, I’m absolutely certain, by no means the only public servant to hold this particular viewpoint – and I can be certain having been part of conversations on the just the same topic myself, some three or so years ago.
Whatever concerns we might have about of civil rights and liberties, it is a simple fact that for many public servants and for the nation’s bureaucracy as a whole, the ID cards Bill is seen as a means to end which makes their working lives that bit easier and which enables them to do thier job just that bit more efficiently – which, in itself, is something that we all need to remember as it highlights one of the key dangers we’re facing here.
Take a good close look at the public ‘architects’ of this bill; David Blunkett, Charles Clarke and yes, Tony Blair as well. Now answer this one question…
… Do you really, seriously, believe that any one of them actually understands the full implications and potential of this piece of legislation, even allowing for the fact that Blair is, himself, a barrister?
No, me neither. Blair is well noted for his lack of technical literacy and I can’t say I think either of the other two have much of better understanding than he does. It’s not simply the Government or the Labour Party who is the ‘enemy’ here but the entire machinery of the State, the vested interests in the public and private sectors who’re pushing hard for this legislation and putting on the hard sell that its the panacea, the solution to everything from terrorism to immigration, identity theft to welfare benefits fraud.
We’re not talking conspiracy theories here and certainly not gettng into the whole business of the Bilderberg Group, Illuminati or even Freemasonry – simply a whole raft of otherwise reasonable people whi, like Speer, either cannot or will not consider the wider picture of what this legislation may really lead to in the long term.
In truth, when it comes to ID cards themselves, Monjo has an eminently defensible position. Even given the current doubts about the reliability of biometrics as it stands today the principle of everyone having an ID card which can be used to accurately verify their identity would undoubtedly have many potential and practical benefits, not least in combatting identity theft.
While no system could be considered absolutely foolproof, claims that some are making that the ID cards themselves could be easily forged or falsified don’t really hold water when you understand exactly how they would work for the simple reason that in order to produce a fake ID card would require not only the card itself but also a false entry on the National Identity Register which would be possible only by either hacking the central database or via the bribery and corruption of a public official.
A secure, and with improvements to biometric scanning, reliable Nation Identity Scheme is perfectly possible, if not right away then certainly within the next 10 to 15 years – but, and this is why the technical community is up in arms, such a system does not require the kind of intrusive all-encompassing indentity register that the Government are proposing no, even, does it need to reveal any personal data to anyone in the process. Identities can be verified using using what, in cryptography, is called a zero knowledge proof.
There is no logical reason for having a National Identity Register which contains what are, in IT terms, are a series of database keys which would allow the State to locate and unlock all manner of information about an individual let alone on which also provides, without legal restriction, a key which can be used by the provate sector to tag personal information in such a way as to allow it to be readily identified.
It’s this, and precisely, this related key infrastructure that I object to so much, that and the audit trail which allows the Government to track all requests for verification of your identity and which, therefore, makes real-time tracking of your movements and actions a real possibility.
This feature of the National Identity Register makes possible a whole range of things which would, if put into practice, create the single, most all-encompassing public surveillance system ever created – one capable of the most massive intrusions into your private life.
One Act of Parliament is not going to plunge us all into an Orwellian nightmare of state scrutiny of every aspect of our personal live, that’s true. In fact if only it were that simple as then the majority of people would see this Bill for what it really is – the biggest threat to civil liberties that we have ever faced.
It’s not a case with our rights and freedoms that it’s ‘here today and gone tomorrow’ rather we’ll see the slow and gradual erosion of freedom over time, one little piece at a time and every piece wrapped up and packaged just so, just in the right kind of terms and the right kind of language to make it all seem oh so very reasonable and rational.
Take a straightforward and very contemporary problem – how about the overpayment of £2bn in tax credits, most of which stems from ineffciencies in the tax credit system – people get overpaid due to simple human errors or, more often than not, because of a lag between their circumstances – and their income – changing and the system catching up with those changes.
Wouldn’t it solve this problem if, say for instance, the Inland Revenue could make automtic adjustments to these payments without relying on people to report changes in income by being permitted, instead, to monitor salary payments as they hit your bank account? Think of the convenience of it all, of never having to worry that they may have got a payment wrong because your salary is tracked authomatically as it reaches your bank account and all thanks to the wonders of the National Identity Register.
How many people do you think would swallow that particular argument? How many would justify just such an intrusion on the grounds that ‘you have nothing to worry about, if you’ve nothing to hide?’
What then if we apply this same idea to the matter of benefit fraud? The principle is pretty much the same – if you bank account(s) show income arriving which you’ve not declared then ergo, it must be fraud and, once again, if you’ve nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear.
But then, people don’t just defraud the system by failing to declare income, the also do it by – for example – claiming incapacity benefit or disability benefits to which they’re not legitimately entitled.
What should we do here? I know, why not permit doctor’s working for the DSS to have access to claimant’s medical records? After all, its easily done thanks to the recording of NHS Registration numbers on the register and, yet again, if you’ve nothing to hide then you’ve nothing to fear.
Ah, but, none of this eats in to the ‘cash-in-hand’ economy does it? Except that how many of even think about the information being gathered everytime we hand over a ‘loyalty card’ at the supermarket – you think that all that’s being tracked is your points and not the complete record of everything you purchased and how much you spent?
And how many shops now ask you for your name and address details when you buy something ‘just for their records’ or so the can notify you of any ‘special offers’ which might interest you?
How far away do you think we are from those same shops saying – oh, don’t worry about giving us your details, we’ll just scan them straight off your ID card…
… and when enough shops are doing that how difficult then is it concieve of the argument that we might, just might, be able to track down people defrauding the system via the ‘black economy’ if only we could use the data that’s own their to look for ‘anomalies’ in what they’re buying and how much they’re spending.
“Mr Smith – our records show that you recieve £150 a week in benefits yet it seems that your expediture is currently running at £300 per week and we know you don;t have any loans or savings – care to explain that?”
And all because if you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to fear.
Drip. Drip. Drip…
There goes your civil rights and your freedoms and all without ever realising just how much you’re losing as it all slips slowly away – because every time the State comes back with a new suggestion for how it could use the data it can access via the National Identity Register it all seems so very reasonable, such small things, in fact just the kind of things that you have no reason to fear…
…because you’ve got nothing to hide.
Now to be fair to Monjo, he’s by no means wholly ignorant of the possibilities – why else would he note, at the end of his piece, Juvenal’s warning – Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?.
Who Guards the Guardians? If not us then, indeed, who?
I wonder if anything written here may change his mind?