Need a passport? You’re nicked for the database

For several weeks the House of Lords held out against the government’s miserable Bill to force anyone applying for a passport from late 2008 or early 2009 to have all their personal details entered on the new National Identity Database (NID) and to be issued with the ID card which will go with it.  This week the Tory peers broke ranks with their LibDem and cross-bench allies and accepted what the government laughingly called a ‘compromise’:  passport applicants will still have their information put on the NID, whether they like it or not, but under the ‘compromise’ they will be able to refuse to accept the accompanying ID card, until the cards too become compulsory for all in 2010. This was no compromise: it was a surrender by the Tories to yet another assault on our civil liberties, perhaps the worst case of control freakery yet.  The option not to accept a card even when one’s details have gone onto the NID will be meaningless, especially as refuseniks will have to pay for a card even though not getting one.  Anyway, the real issue has always been the grossly intrusive character of the database, not the comparatively harmless bit of plastic.  Any old snooper or nark, if sufficiently ingenious in asserting need, will have access to our database information; we shall probably be unable in practice, despite reassuring undertakings to the contrary, to check whether the information on us is correct (which it’s most unlikely to be, on past form); every transaction involving access to the database will be permanently recorded, leaving each of us with an electronic paper-trail plotting our every movement and activity;  and our ancient freedom to assume a different identity for our own protection or convenience (so long as we don’t use it for fraud or other illegal activity) will be gone for ever.  Every one of us will be metaphorically hand-cuffed to a 24/7 CCTV camera transmitting every detail of our lives to Big Brother somewhere in Whitehall or Westminster.  And Orwell thought he was writing satire!

It’s not, anyway, as if the government has ever been able to come up with a convincing explanation of what the database and the ID cards are expected to achieve that couldn’t be just as well (and much more cheaply) achieved by other means. Relatively little benefit fraud is based on false identity, and even if it was, serious fraudsters won’t take long to steal, otherwise acquire, or manufacture fake cards. Terrorists planning an attack will already have their cards, obtained perfectly legitimately, and their possession need not inconvenience their deadly plans in the smallest degree. Society’s congenital misfits and unfortunates will be the most likely to lose their cards, and will suffer disproportionate hardship and discrimination through not being able to produce them, thus criminalising yet more of the long suffering underclass.  Witness protection, the search for peace and privacy by celebrities, a spot of adultery on a hotel week-end break, the use of maiden names by feminists and of pen-names by writers and of pseudonyms by the obsessively shy will all be made tiresomely difficult or impossible, with absolutely no countervailing benefit.  Anonymity will become a pipe-dream.  No-one who has committed even the most trivial offence, or been wrongly convicted of one, will ever see the stain on his record erased after having paid his debt to society: every inquisitive council bureaucrat, snooping racism inspector, petty government official, grasping tax collector, eye-brow-raising hotel receptionist, zealous copper and prying bank clerk will find a way to know about it.  (The technology required to limit access on a need-to-know basis, as officially forecast, is most unlikely to be effective.)  Knowledge is power, and an officious government will know much more about every one of us than it needs or ought to know.  Gone will be any hope of the government minding its own business, and letting us mind ours while we get on with our lives.  Orwell was overly pessimistic only in forecasting the arrival of the all-seeing totalitarian state in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’.  It has taken a little longer.

And by the way: the Labour Party manifesto at last year’s General Election (.pdf) promised that ID cards would initially be voluntary.  The abandonment of that pledge has been a main justification for the Lords’ resistance to the government’s Bill (now an Act) under which if you applied for a passport, your information automatically and compulsorily went on the database and you got an ID card as well as a passport.  Ministers have had the brass neck to defend this betrayal of the manifesto by pointing out that no-one is forced to apply for a passport:  that a passport is purely an optional extra, just as the ID card and the entry in the database will be.  Technically true, of course: we could all avoid the need for a passport by remaining permanently on our wind-swept little island, and that way we could keep ourselves off the database right up to 2010 when inclusion becomes compulsory for everyone, with or without a passport.  Now, under this brazenly mis-named compromise, we can actually decline to have an ID card even if we need a passport before 2010 — but the info will still go on the database, and we’ll pay for the card whether or not we accept it, so there’ll be no possible advantage, and some inconvenience, in refusing it.  The harm will already have been done by then, with your life story, past and future, securely tucked away on the database. By such shameless casuistry is the integrity of the manifesto technically restored.  What fools they take us for!


7 Responses

  1. John Miles says:

    I agree.

  2. Tim Weakley says:

    I’m in two minds about the whole ID card business. One point against the idea is that it has not been convincingly explained by anyone how, even if the carrying as well as possession of cards was mandatory, the apprehension of villains or would-be villains or the prevention of serious crimes would be materially assisted, particularly if the possession of a card is (for a while at least) a matter of choice. Also, surely the police already have the right to demand proof of identity in certain circumstances? If so, what circumstances and what sorts of proof? Can your readers advise me? What is so special about terrorism that the existing powers should be inadequate?  
    I have no particular objection to carrying an ID card, instead of or as well as my driving licence, to be used as proof of identity provided (i) that the powers-that-be make it very clear who is allowed to ask me to show it and when; (ii) that it displays only my photo, name, date of birth, address (optional) and identifying number (they may use my national insurance number); and (iii) there is no electronically-encoded information other than said number – and, I suppose, a coded message saying ‘This is an officially-issued card and we have checked that the name goes with the photo’, to make it harder for the less-sophisticated forger. I would further insist that the card should be deemed legally acceptable and sufficient proof of identity (and address, if the bearer opts for it) in all transactions, including non-official ones such as the opening of a bank account. However, I mistrust the idea of a National Database, even if I knew what it held about me and I had the right to challenge and amend the data, and I’m damned if I want the Inland Revenue,  or a prospective employer if I was still in the market, having access to my health records, or any similar inappropriateness. Moreover I object to paying for the thing on top of my other taxes, or for getting it updated if I move house or shave my beard. 

  3. matt says:

    I agree with your comments (sorry, I was in a techy mood last week! 🙂 ), and if (as they currently claim) the Tory’s make a manifesto commitment to scrap the ID database and ID card will you vote for them? If not will you 1) renew your passport in 2007 and try to put the whole thing off for a decade? 2) Emigrate to another country   where one is considered a citizen rather than a subject?


    Brian replies:  However strongly I might feel about the national database and ID cards issue, I don’t foresee that it will loom so large as to persuade me to vote Conservative for the first time in my life even if they promise to scrap the whole scheme.  I don’t think it’s possible to renew a passport until it’s within 6 months or thereabouts of its expiry date (but I may be wrong).   I’ve spent too much of my adult life abroad to contemplate emigrating now, whatever fresh indignities might be inflicted on us.  Life will go on, I suppose, global warming permitting.  And Britain is still a great place to live (well, London, anyway).

  4. It must be pointed out that the Holocaust was expedited by the Nazis’ national ID register.  And they only had IBM punchcards!

    Brian writes:  A chilling comment… 

  5. Aidan says:

    I agree with all your concerns, and more:
    a) It’s going to cost a fortune, far more than current estimates.
    b) I don’t believe the biometric matching is sufficiently reliable.
    c) I doubt they will be able to reliably detect duplicates, ie same person having more than one record, and if they can’t do this then the exercise is more or less futile.
    d) I don’t believe the rules governing access will be tight enough, or that people will be able to check who has been looking at their record and why.
    e) I don’t trust them to keep the data secure, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the whole lot turned up on a black market DVD in Hong Kong.
    f) It would concern me that a future (even) less scrupulous government might not use the list to target police investigations etc into individuals that were irritating them in some way or another.
    g) Even assuming all this, the practical benefits are not great. It’s very unlikely that enough crime, including terrorism will be prevented to justify the cost, and they have no other function.
    On the question of voting for a party based on its commitment to scrap them, it’s not a killer issue but it’s a pretty big plus (if you can believe the manifesto commitment). Although my concern would be that the project would be continued under a different guise such as Inland Revenue or passports and that we might end up in the same place over time.
    Finally ‘compulsory’ can obviously mean either absolutely mandatory by law, or merely coercion. The ID cards are clearly compulsory in the second sense, and possibly in the first given that it is compulsory for anyone getting a passport, a common and even necessary activity. Once again it seems a case of a word meaning exactly what they choose it to mean. Yet another black mark for Labour, as far as I’m concerned.

    Brian comments:  Alas, I share all these concerns, too.  It’s frightening and utterly unacceptable. 

  6. Bob says:

    The whole thing is so typical of Blair the petty-minded authoritarian with bizarre Old Testament beliefs in keeping his people in line. Trouble is he never thinks anything through:  ‘But PM, most yobs don’t have plastic cards at all, let alone with £100 on them. That’s WHY they rob other people….PM, seems to me there are now more people phoning while driving since you passed a law against it….  PM, will the same people who got the computer contract for renewing passports be able to cock up the ID cards too?  Ooooo, please…! PM, you know those chaps of yours who create new identities for IRA informers? They’ll have a nice little earner on the side when they retire, won’t they? Piece of cake for them – and for how manyothers?  (And remember Spycatcher! There’s always someone with a grudge…)  Oh, and PM, will things like spent convictions really not appear on ID cards? Don’t you think it would be safer to label someone for life, just to be on the safe side?  I mean, here’s Cameron saying 10 years should mean 10 years. You’ve got to do something to out-tough that!
    Or am I behind the times? Has he said that God will be his judge on ID cards too……?’

  7. matt says:

    The other strange thing about this proposal is as follows:If the ID database contains retinal scans then there is no need for an ID card This is because the ID card is effectively embeded in your skull :-)In effect once retinal scans are on a database and that database has (appropriately secured) network access the easy way of checking identity is for the identity checker to have a retinal scanner backending into the ID database.Much as I disagree with the proposal, when HMG comes up with a technology driven propsal it should at least show a minimum level of technical understanding. (I imagine we have come to this position because of the following:Sir James Hoy (a civil servent) : We should have ID cardsKen Clark (former HS): Not on my nelly.(years later) Sir James Hoy (a civil servent) :We should have ID cardsDavid Blunkett: Good ideaDavid Blunkett: I know, let’s tack on biometric data – no don’t bother looking at how this changes the original proposal – it’s a no brainer as it allows us to meet up coming EU/US requirements )As a last point as retinal scans become better and cheaper it is possible that the cops could just scan a crowd using CCTV and then overlay the names, colour coded by security risk, and any other relevant data onto the picture.