Where the truth becomes a lie

One of the more interesting and illuminating books I’ve read in a long time is Tim Slessor’s ‘Lying in State’ which through a range of examples, some familiar (Hutton, Belgrano, Gulf War Syndrome) and some maybe not so familiar (the Chagos Islanders, Chinook ZD576) explores the way in which Whitehall routinely lies, dissembles and obfuscates in order to limit our exposure to the truth of what our Government and the State get up to – supposedly in our name.

One of the more interesting tactics is common use is, interestingly enough, actually to tell the truth – but in such a way that even the truth fails to tell the full story and becomes, instead, misleading as in this example from Home Office Minister, Tony McNulty in written answer to Sadiq Khan MP (Tooting, Lab) –

“Since the publication of the Identity Cards Bill on 25 May 2005, 21 representations have been received from members of the public. No representations have been received from any organisations or official bodies. The representations took the form of both letters and e-mails, and they expressed concern that the Identity Card Scheme would infringe civil liberties.

The Government believe that the Identity Cards Scheme will support civil liberties and human rights. The scheme will be bound by legislation such as the Data Protection Act, Human Rights Act and the Disability Discrimination Act. The Identity Cards Bill also contains a number of important safeguards such as setting limitations on the information that may be held by the scheme and its use. Only Parliament would be able to change the statutory purposes of the Register or the type of information which could be held and only via primary legislation.”

To understand what’s happening here let’s look at two specific point where the literal truth of the Minister’s answer fails to encompass the full reality of the ID cards debate.

First we have:

“21 representations have been received from members of the public. No representations have been received from any organisations or official bodies.”

That may indeed be true but, as should be obvious, it fails entirely to reflect the widespread and detailed debate that is actually taking place on the subject of ID cards and the National Identity Register. If fails to acknowledge the existence of the NO2ID campaign, the LSE’s analysis of ID cards which was widely reported in the media and their subsequent work on developing an alternative system which would be both substantially cheaper and far less intrusive.

To the Home Office, in responding via a Minister to a Member of Parliament, none of this exists as it has not been reported directly to them even though this entire debate is being conducted openly and in full sight of the public in the media and on the Internet.

This, as Slessor notes on several occasions is classic Whitehall, where civil servants will decide what information is, and more often than not, isn’t relevant to the question being answered and draft a response accordingly. Indeed a key element of the credo of the Government is that in response to Parliamentary questions it should provide the minimum information necessary to answer a particular question and nothing more, as giving additional detailed information invariably spawns further, usually unwelcome, questions – thus we get comments like this one;

“It was apparent to me that if we were to moved down the route of following the detailed analysis which was being requested, we would end up with yet more requests for yet more information”

That comment was made to a Parliamentary Select Committee by the then Defence Minister, Michael Heseltine, in relation to a detailed analysis of the circumstances of the sinking of the Argentine warship Belgrano prepared by Clive Ponting. Ponting, as you may recall, was subsequently arrested, prosecuted and finally acquitted of braking the Official Secrets Act after leaking elements of his report, which he was asked to compile by the Foreign Office, to a Member of Parliament, Tam Dalyell.

Knowing, then, that the provision of answers which are factually correct but incomplete is very much a standard tactic in Whitehall when Ministers and their civil service advisers are seeking to obscure the truth, what of Tony McNulty’s other key statement?

“Only Parliament would be able to change the statutory purposes of the Register or the type of information which could be held and only via primary legislation.”

This is, again, a factually true but extremely limited statement which does not encompass the full extent to which data may be added to the National Identity Register or how that data may potentially be used.

First of all it needs to be understood that while this apparent stricture, requiring primary legislation, i.e. a full Act of Parliament, to extend the Register applies only in circumstances where Government is seeking to extend its purpose or the type of information it holds might reasonably lead one to believe that an Act of Parliament would be required to add any additional information to the Register, over and above what is already specified, this is in fact not the case.

The Act defines two clear statutory purposes for which the Register may be used;

(i)Provision of a convenient method for individuals to prove their identity; and

(ii)Provision of a secure means of identifying individuals where that is in the public interest.

And goes on to define the public interest as encompassing;

– National security;
– Prevention and detection of crime;
– Enforcement of immigration controls;
– Enforcements on prohibitions on unauthorised working or employment; and
– Efficient and effective provision of public services.

As you can see this is already a pretty broad definition to begin with, particularly if one considers the full scope of information that might be conceivably be incorporated into the Register just on the basis of these definitions alone.

The full list of information which will be included, right from the outset, is not in the Bill itself but in Schedule 1 of the Bill – for those unfamiliar with legal terminology, think of a schedule as being like an appendix – about which the Government’s own explanatory notes have this to say;

Schedule 1 may be amended by secondary legislation following a resolution in both Houses of Parliament to add to the list of information that may be recorded on the Register. However, any additional information must be consistent with the statutory purposes of the Register. So, for example, this power to amend Schedule 1 could not be used to include criminal records in that Schedule without further primary legislation as recording previous criminal convictions is not covered by the definition of registrable facts and so is not consistent with the statutory purposes of the Register in clause 1″

Ah, so in actual fact, an Act of Parliament would be required only if the Government wished to do something completely different with the Register from what’s already been specified – if all it wishes to do is extend the range of information in the Register within its existing purposes then only secondary legislation, a statutory instrument, needs to be passed.

An Act of Parliament would not, therefore, be needed to add a DNA profile to personal data held about individuals within the Register as, obviously, recording such information would be entirely consistent with its use in the detection of crime. What wouldn’t the Police and its forensic scientists give for access to a national DNA register?

The same argument could also be made in relation to recording information about an individual’s bank accounts and other financial records as a aide to the detection of ‘white collar’ crime, fraud and money laundering and, therefore, this too would be entirely permissible without a full Act of Parliament just on the existing definition of the Register’s purpose.

This, then, is the first – of three – ways in which the Minister’s statement, which factually correct, succeeds in providing a misleading and incomplete picture of the full extent to which the Register may impact on our daily lives.

The second misleading absence of information is closely related to the first and exemplified by the statement, in the Government’s explanatory notes to the Bill, that;

“for example, this power to amend Schedule 1 could not be used to include criminal records in that Schedule without further primary legislation”

In simple terms, what the Government is saying is that it would require an Act of Parliament to include details of an individual’s criminal record on the Register – and, of course, by implication, one can extend that same stricture to other records, medical records, tax records, welfare benefit records, etc.

Now, as anyone who understands how databases work will tell you, the first and most obvious thing about this statement is that mere idea of compiling things like criminal records into the Resister is, for simple and practical reasons, a total nonsense – for no other reason than that the sheer amount of data that would have to be stored in a single system in order to do this would make the Register so unwieldy as to be almost useless. It would simply collapse under the sheer weight of information it was being asked to hold.

The Government can, therefore, quite happily make this idea subject to the requirement that full Act of Parliament should be passed to make it possible simply because it no intention of ever doing it anyway.

The second thing to note – and the basis of my original article ‘Unlocking the Register’ – is that in order to use the National Identity Register to access things like medical records – the Government is currently spending around £6 billion on computerising record keeping in the NHS – tax records and criminal records, which are or will be held on different databases you do not need to store those records in the Register itself. All you need to store in the Register is the information needed to locate this information in the database in which it is already stores.

To use the example of your tax records. In the tax system each individual is identified uniquely via their National Insurance Number – if you have someone’s NI Number you can search the tax system for their individual records and locate them very easily. So as long as you record someone’s NI number in the Register – which the Register will as this is already included in Schedule 1 – then the information the Register provides will, in turn, provide you with the information you need to locate and examine an individual’s tax records provided that you have the authority to do so.

However, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Identity Cards Bill will go so far as to identify who might use the contents of the Register to access your data or in what circumstances they may be able to carry out such an examination. Such powers, some of which already exist, are, or will be, defined in a range of different primary and secondary legislation, making it nigh on impossible to identify who might have access to what without a detailed and time consuming trawl of the statute books.

This, then, is the unstated purpose of the National Identity Register, it acts as an index, and as ‘skeleton key’, to locate and unlock a vast range of information about individuals which is held across government and in a wide range of other databases and, indeed, will include from the outset a number of index references – what in database terms are called ‘keys’ – to other systems including your passport and driving licence numbers as your National Insurance Number.

In order, therefore, to link your medical records, or even your criminal record, to the Register its not necessary to store that information in the Register itself, only its location – another database – and the unique identifier – the key – required to identify and isolate your individual records from everyone else’s. And this information can be added to the Register at any time not by Act of Parliament but by secondary legislation, by a statutory instrument which is not, generally, subject to anything like the same degree of scrutiny or debate as a full Act.

In fact, if you look at when and how many statutory instruments are debated and passed, especially one’s which may be somewhat contentious as those extending the Register could be, you’ll find that a little Parliamentary ‘trick’ usually comes into play in which debates on statutory instruments are scheduled to take place on a Friday afternoon, at a time when the majority of MP’s have already left for their constituencies and are, therefore, not present for the debate. It’s fairly easy, therefore, for secondary legislation to slip in under the radar with the minimum of debate and without the public, for the most part, even realising its happened.

The third and final deceit regarding the National Identity Register is rather less obvious than the other two yet, in many ways, potentially the intrusive and the most damaging to civil liberties inasmuch as it enables personal information and data to be linked to the Register without anyone even realising it.

In order to locate a specific piece of information in a database you need a ‘unique identifier’, a piece of information held in the database which is unique to that information – and when it comes to identifying information which relates to a specific individual, the Register provides just such a unique identifier, your National Identity Registration Number.

Now, if and/or when ID cards are introduced, one of the pieces of information which will be disclosed to anyone making a request to verify your identity will be your National Identity Registration Number, the number which uniquely identifies you – and once that information has been disclosed there is nothing in the Bill to say how it may then be recorded or used. The only protection, in law, you will have will be via the Data Protection Act which, when it comes to issues of privacy, is far from watertight.

In fact, its highly likely that a wide range of third parties will make use of and record your National Identity Registration Number as a matter of routine – one can envisage from the outset that the financial services industry will be amongst the earliest adopters and that before very long, banks, building societies, credit reference agencies, insurance and pension companies and others will all be tagging every single piece of information they hold with your Registration Number and using that number to exchange information about you an your finances. Once your National Identity Registration Number gets out ‘into the wild’ it can be used for a wide range of purposes outside of those specified in the Bill and with few controls on its use. More often than not, you may not even realise that its being used.

Moreover, because the Register incorporates an ‘audit trail’ which records each an every time a third party accesses the Register in order to verify your identity, when this happened and, most importantly of all, who was doing the asking, the Government then has a complete record of everyone who is using he Register and your National Identity Registration Number – so if the Government did, for any reason, want to know what you’ve been doing – or even where you were at a particular time – the audit trail will tell it exactly where to look…

… and it already knows what to look for – any information to which your National Identity Registration Number has been attached.

It should be noted that, on its own, the National Identity Register does not create a ‘surveillance state’. It does however put in the place the means the create such a state by providing a mechanism which enables a wide range of personal information held in a variety of locations, not all of them in government by any means, to be connected together to form a comprehensive ‘picture’ of who you are, where you are and, more importantly, what you’ve been doing.

I’ve now written maybe three or four full articles on the subject of ID cards and more specifically on the National Identity Register and the ‘deeper truth’ of these proposals, which go far beyond anything that the Government or the State will openly discuss or admit to.

Much of what I’ve had to say in those earlier articles – which are all categorised under ‘Civil Liberties’ if you wish to review them – tended to be quite technical in tone, a fact noted obliquely by Vicki Woods, writing in yesterday’s Telegraph, in pointing out that she didn’t quite understand the concept of ‘foreign keys’ from ‘Unlocking the Register’. In fact she can be entirely forgiven for having difficulty with that concept, it is difficult unless one possesses a solid technical understanding of databases and database design, and its recognition of that that I sat down to write this piece in the hope that I could provide a less technical explanation of the extent to which the National Identity Register may quietly infiltrate every aspect of our daily lives.

I, therefore, owe Vicki a debt of gratitude for showing me, perhaps without realising it herself, the need for a less technical examination of the Register and a debt of thanks for recognising, in the mainstream press, not only my own work but the work of other bloggers on this issue. It’s good to see the mainstream press starting to pick up on what’s going on out here in the blogosphere and, in particular, recognising that increasingly much of detailed work of unpicking government policy and identifying what Whitehall is really up to is going on out here on the Internet. Good for us, certainly, but also, I believe, good for democracy as out here on the electronic frontier is where you’ll find many of the debates which government would rather we didn’t have and which they clearly would like to ignore; not just about ID cards and the National Identity Register but on electoral reform and PR, and also on Europe, which above all others has been the debate which dare not speak its name in either of the two main political parties for the last few years.

I also owe a similar debt of thanks to a number of fellow bloggers including Tim Worstall, Robin Grant and all at perfect.co.uk, the Honourable Fiend, Tim Hicks, Monjo and others who’ve been kind enough to refer to, and link to my work – which also reminds me of the desperate need I have to update my blogroll as its now fallen hopeless behind the number of RSS feeds I have syndicated through Firefox.

Oh, and lets not forget NO2ID in all this, for leading the campaign against ID cards and tacking so many more issues that I’ve personally had time to deal with.

What I also hope I’ve demonstrated here is how, in the hands of a politician or civil servant, even the truth can be misleading, incomplete and downright disingenuous, although I should note my belief, in this case, that it’s doubtful that the Minister in question, Tony McNulty, is even aware of just how far from the full truth his statement, quoted in the article, is. The ID Cards Bill is a highly technical bill which creates a highly technical system of interlocking databases and records the full extent of which is most probably understood only by those within the Civil Service charged with the development of this system. In short I doubt even those politicians most closely involved in bring forward these proposals, first David Blunkett and, more recently, Charles Clarke, understand anything more than what they are told by their Civil Service advisers.

As Slessor’s book – which I heartily recommend to anyone interested in understanding how Whitehall operates – demonstrates on several occasions, what even the Minister knows may quite easily be some considerable way short of the full truth, even though it is the Minister who ‘carries the can’ should it be discovered that they have misled Parliament, even having been misled themselves by Whitehall. And even were I, as a member of the Labour Party, inclined to trust my fellow party members in Government, that trust does not extend to the legions of unelected and unaccountable minions of the State, the civil servants who are busily constructing this reprehensible system and who, should it come into being, will be the ones to administer and make use of it and its almost unrestrained ability to intrude into our personal lives.

And its for this last reason that I believe that we should, indeed we must, resist the introduction of ID cards or, if we are to have them, to have them in a form which does not, in turn, require anything near such an extensive and centralised identity register – such a system is not only possible but eminently workable and far cheaper to install and administer that the monstrosity being proposed by this current government, yet the government seem unwilling to even admit to such a possibility, let alone debates its merits openly and in public.

Government’s, ultimately, may be held to account. We have the ballot box as our ultimate weapon, our means of exacting a little payback on a ruling party who we see to be acting against our interests as citizens.

But when it comes to the State, to the people who build, administer and ultimately make use of such systems, the people who could most directly intrude on our personal lives through use of the Register, then we have no such weapon and no means of holding them directly to account – and its that about which we should be most nervous and most watchful because when we ask Juvenal’s question, “Quis Custodiet Ipso Custodes” – ‘Who will guard the guardians’ – the answer is no one but themselves.

5 thoughts on “Where the truth becomes a lie

  1. Britblog Roundup # 18
    Welcome, welcome to the Britblog Roundup as mentioned in yesterday’s Telegraph! We must truly be on a roll if we start getting mentioned by the real media, you know, the ones people actually pay for. You can add to this

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