Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A Well Argued Piece

I know that a vast majority of Daily(ish) Millbrook readers let out a groan when I start doing the political stuff, but I'll keep going anyway. Go on - it's not a long article, and it's well worth reading...

This new article, reproduced here in full from, is by a research scholar at The International Security Program, Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University who is also a World fellow of Yale University; so probably not a raving pinko - neither of those institutions is renowned for its radical left-leaning sympathies.

"ID cards' main purpose is to make life easier for officials. When all the fake arguments are cast to one side, you're left with a mandatory, government-led Facebook account.

By Azeem Ibrahim

Have you noticed how the government keeps changing the reason why we need identity cards?

In the dark post-9/11 years, they would help us fight terrorism. That petered out; when he was no longer home secretary, Charles Clarke admitted that ID cards would probably not have stopped the 7/7 attacks on London. As fear of terrorism was replaced by fear of identity theft, the justification shifted to the idea that they would help make identity theft harder. Later, controlling immigration was touted. And more recently, the government has argued that having personal details secured in one place would just be more convenient. Last April, Lord West of Spithead told the House of Lords that ID cards "will provide a single, safe and secure way of protecting personal details and proving identity ... which, I think, will bring convenience."

The quantity of arguments for ID cards looks like an attempt to hide a lack of quality. The government has been hard-pressed to explain how ID cards will make us safer. It is true that they will make it easier for, say, customs officials to ascertain that you are who you say you are. But that can already be done for everyone who has a passport. It is true that biometric chips might make the process more accurate. But that argues for biometric passports, as another recanting ex-home secretary, David Blunkett, has pointed out. If you want to make identification more accurate by introducing a biometric chip, that does not entail spending £3 billion in a recession on an entirely new biometric ID card scheme.

Traditional opposition to ID cards, meanwhile, has focused on the threat they pose to our liberty. John Steyn captured the tone of these arguments when he reminded us that Voltaire had written that 'the civil wars of Rome ended in slavery, and those of the English in liberty'. Your neighbour who works at the local council could find out exactly how old you are or whether or not your Visa has been approved. Pop stars, footballers, or just attractive newscasters would know that their addresses were available to over-eager fans working at the Department of Work and Pensions, the DVLA, or many other government agencies.

Council workers have already started checking details of celebrities, friends, and girlfriends. Of the 34 who have done so, nine have been sacked. If that ratio were extrapolated nationally, government workers can be confident that they can check on details with about a one-in-four chance of getting sacked. The government has responded by assuring us that, in the words of Lord West, "the Identity Cards Act 2006 establishes a statutory duty for the national identity register to be secure and reliable". This completely misses the point. It is no good the government specifying that snooping is a crime; the council worker who checked the celebrity’s record didn't do it thinking it was OK. Bringing in new legislation will not remove the temptation or do much to alter the snooper’s incentive structure.

And if you want to argue that these coffee-break snoopers are one-offs, you have to contend with government figures which admit that there were 100,000 offences under the Data Protection Act in the Department of Work and Pensions and Revenue and Customs alone in the four years between 2000 and 2004.

The databases are beginning to look like government-mandated Facebook – a register of personal information which government employees can check and which you will eventually be obliged to join

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