net.wars: Hard times at the identity corral

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 04 August 2006

If there is one thing we always said about the ID card it's that it was going to be tough to implement. About ten days ago, the Sunday Times revealed how tough: manufacturers are oddly un-eager to bid to make something that a) the Great British Public is likely to hate, and b) they're not sure they can manufacture anyway.

Wendy M Grossman

That suggests (even more strongly than before) that in planning the ID card the government operated like an American company filing a dodgy patent: if we specify it, they will come.

I sympathize with IBM and the other companies, I really do. Anyone else remember 1996, when nearly all the early stories coming out of the Atlanta Olympics blamed IBM' prominently for every logistical snafu? Some really weren't IBM's fault (such as the traffic jams). Given the many failures of UK government IT systems, being associated with the most public, widespread, visible system of all could be real stock market poison.

But there's a secondary aspect to the ID card that I, at least, never considered before. It's akin to the effect often seen in the US when an amendment to the Constitution is proposed. Even if it doesn't get ratified in enough states – as, for example, the Equal Rights Amendment did not – the process of considering it often inspires a wave of related legislation. The fact that ID cards, biometric identifiers, and databases are being planned and thought about at such a high level seems to be giving everyone the idea that identity is the hammer for every nail.

Take, for example, the announcement a couple of days ago of NetIDme, a virtual ID card intended to help kids identify each other online and protect them from the pedophiles our society apparently now believes are lurking behind every electron.

There are a lot of problems with this idea, worthy though the intentions behind it undoubtedly are. For one thing, placing all your trust in an ID scheme like this is a risk in itself. To get one of these IDs, you fill out a form online and then a second one that's sent to your home address and must be counter-signed by a professional person (how like a British passport) and a parent if you're under 18. It sounds to me as though this system would be relatively easy to spoof, even if you assume that no professional person could possibly be a bad actor (no one has, after ever fraudulently signed passports). No matter how valid the ID is when it's issued, in the end it's a computer file protected by a password; it is not physically tied to the holder in any way, any more than your Hotmail ID and password are. For a third thing, "the card removes anonymity," the father who designed the card, Alex Hewitt, told The Times. But anonymity can protect children as well as crooks. And you'd only have to infiltrate the system once to note down a long list of targets for later use.

But the real kicker is in NetIDme's privacy policy, in which the fledgling company makes it absolutely explicit that the database of information it will collect to issue IDs is an asset of a business: it may sell the database, the database will be "one of the transferred assets" if the company itself is sold, and you explicitly consent to the transfer of your data "outside of your country" to wherever NetIDme or its affiliates "maintain facilities". Does this sound like child safety to you?

But NetIDme and other systems – fingerprinting kids for school libraries, iris-scanning them for school cafeterias – have the advantage that they can charge for their authentication services. Customers (individuals, schools) have at least some idea of what they're paying for. This is not true for the UK's ID card, whose costs and benefits are still unclear, even after years of dickering over the legislation. A couple of weeks ago, it became known that as of October 5 British passports will cost £66, a 57 percent increase that No2ID attributes in part to the costs of infrastructure needed for ID cards but not for passports. But if you believe the LSE's estimates, we're not done yet. Most recent government estimates are that an ID card/passport will cost £93, up from £85 at the time of the LSE report. So, a little quick math: the LSE report also guessed that entry into the national register would cost £35 to £40 with a small additional charge for a card, so revising that gives us a current estimate of £38.15 to £43.60 for registration alone. If no one can be found to make the cards but the government tries to forget ahead with the database anyway, it will be an awfully hard sell. "Pay us £40 to give us your data, which we will keep without any very clear idea of what we're going to do with it, and in return maybe someday we'll sell you a biometric card whose benefits we don't know yet." If they can sell that, they may have a future in Alaska selling ice boxes to Eskimos.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).