Not just privacy, but mobile commerce threatened by "identity theft"

by Guy Kewney | posted on 03 July 2002

A privacy watchdog has warned that plans to introduce cards will be exploited by criminal syndicates. The news is equally bad for those hoping to use mobile phones as ID for commerce.

Guy Kewney

The Government's plan to introduce a national ID card, the consultation for which is scheduled for Parliamentary announcement today (3rd July) will compound problems of illegal immigration, fraud and identity theft, says Privacy International.

Privacy International, a global privacy and technology watchdog, has for the past twelve years studied the implications of ID cards worldwide. It today issued a warning to the UK government that any national ID card - whether voluntary or mandatory - will create new opportunities for criminal syndicates and corrupt officials to increase by several magnitudes the problem of false ID in the United Kingdom.

Privacy International's research into the implications of national identity cards has established that these initiatives have no effect on the reduction of crime or fraud, but introduce additional problems of discrimination, criminal false identity and administrative chaos.

Privacy International's Director, Simon Davies, warned "The technology gap between governments and organised crime has now narrowed to such an extent that even the most highly secure cards are available as blanks weeks after their introduction. Criminals and terrorists can in reality move more freely and more safely with several fake "official" identities than they ever could in a country using multiple forms of "low-value" ID such as a birth certificate."

Criminal use of fake identity documents does not necessarily involve the use of counterfeiting techniques. In 1999, a former accountant was charged with obtaining up to 500 UK passports under false identities. The scam was merely a manipulation of the primary documentation procedure. This situation, warns Privacy International, will extend to ID cards.

Mr Davies added: "the ramifications of an ID card conform to the dynamics of the black market economy. Whenever governments attempt to introduce an ID card, it is always based on the aim of eliminating false identity. The higher the stated "integrity" (infallibility) of a card, the greater is its value to criminals and illegal immigrants. A high-value card attracts substantially larger investment in corruption and counterfeit activity. The equation is simple: higher value ID equals greater criminal activity."

The government says a national ID card will combat the growing problem of identity theft, in which a person's identity is fraudulently acquired for criminal purposes. It is a huge problem in the US, made all the worse because of the ubiquitous Social Security Number. Critics of national ID proposals in the US have warned that any central ID number massively increases the incidence of identity theft. Privacy International supports this view, and predicts that any national ID system will increase identity theft in the UK to US proportions.

Privacy International believes that the proposal for a national identity card has little to do with the government's stated objectives of reducing the threat of crime, terrorism and illegal immigration. Rather, the plan is part of a broader objective outlined in the Cabinet Office report "Privacy & Data Sharing" to create a new administrative basis for the linkage of government databases and information systems.

Privacy International (PI) is a human rights group formed in 1990 as a watchdog on surveillance by governments and corporations. PI is based in London, and has an office in Washington, D.C. Together with members in 40 countries, PI has conducted campaigns throughout the world on issues ranging from wiretapping and national security activities, to ID cards, video surveillance, data matching, police information systems, and medical privacy, and works with a wide range of parliamentary and inter-governmental organisations such as the European Parliament, the House of Lords and UNESCO.

Its website is It contains an extensive resource in the "issues" page on identity cards.