net.wars: A national database or 60,000 more policeman

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 25 March 2004

This is one of those things where you hate to keep harping on about it, but the expectation is that legislation to create the national database whose physical manifestation will be a national identify card will be upon us in a matter of weeks, and it's a good idea to be ready in case they don't give us much time to comment.

Wendy M Grossman

Though there may not be much to comment on. If the Children's Bill is any guide (see particularly Part II, Section 8), national identity card legislation will follow the trend to be completely vague and put off all the important nuts and bolts into regulations - secondary legislation that can be passed with minimal debate. The Children's Bill, by the way, creates a national database of all children under 18. In other words, we can vote down the national database/identity card now, but in 20 years being numbered and tracked will seem normal to emergent adults.

On Monday, the Law Society held a public meeting to discuss the matter. Besides a clot of lawyers, speakers included Privacy International's Simon Davies, James Bamford from the Information Commissioner's office, and Roger Smith, director of Justice. Defending the card were Stephen Harrison, head of policy for the identity cards program at the Home Office (replacing minister Beverly Hughes), and Jan Berry, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales.

When Harrison noted that he was uncomfortable delivering the minister's speech, even though he'd drafted it, there was a Yes, Minister moment of hope: we were going to hear from the power behind the throne! Unfortunately, Harrison didn't say anything we hadn't heard many times before. The card will stop benefit fraud, Make Trouble for organised crime, and so on.

Jan Berry was more interesting. The police are likely to play a significant role in how the card is used and perceived in everyday life. The major British police agencies - Berry's own organisation, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), and the Superintendent Association are all supporters of ID cards.

Yet Berry's views seemed less certain than that makes it sound. "My instinct as a police officer," she said, "has always been that identity cards could be very useful - but only if a number of very important [unspecified] provisos are satisfied." She did go on to suggest that "sceptical" members of the public would learn to "embrace" ID cards once they saw the many benefits. Among them would be the simplicity of identifying people who have been stopped.

Coincidentally, the US Supreme Court is currently hearing the case of Dudley Hiibel, a Nevada cowboy who refused to produce ID when a policeman suddenly stopped and asked to see it. Part of the police argument in this case is that being able to compel people to identify themselves is self-protection: they need to know if they are dealing with dangerous criminals who might produce weapons. Curiously, I haven't heard anyone make this argument in favour of ID cards, but doubtless it will come.

Berry's speech seemed to suggest that the police have bought the government. She even seems to believe that they're not really even going to be that expensive, noting that the question police are often asked by ID card opponents, whether they would prefer an ID card or 60,000 more policeman, is inappropriate because it's not fair to compare the start-up costs of the ID card system to the ongoing costs of 60,000 policemen.

Maybe it's not: but Government IT systems typically run way over budget and take far longer than expected to work correctly, if they ever do, and running costs are often more than expected, too. As things are, a £3 billion start-up cost is an awful lot of money for a piece of technology no one can really be sure will work as advertised, especially when British residents will additionally have to pay nearly £100 to get a card.

Net.wars tends to talk more about the case against ID cards - costs, privacy, discrimination, the practicality of doing background checks on 56 million people - than it does about the case for them. The problem is that, at least as the case was presented on Monday, the arguments in favour seem to be so weak.

The Law Society, for example, has challenged the Home Office to produce clear evidence that the ID card will be successful in preventing identity fraud. Impersonation, the group notes in the submission it made in response to the consultation paper, is only a tiny percentage of benefit fraud. "Nearly all of it is based on an under-reporting of income or lying about one's circumstances." Plus, the group goes on to say, criminals and terrorists find it easier, not harder, to move successfully around the world using faked high-level identity cards than they do now. And blank cards are increasingly easily available, as the technology gap between government and criminals narrows.

As Berry came down the side of the room past me on her way to her next appointment, I stopped her. "So, you never said. Which would you choose? The ID card or the 60,000 extra policemen?" She nodded and smiled sheepishly. "The 60,000 policemen."

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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).