net.wars: Identifying entitlement

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 06 February 2004

As the Queen's speech made plain in November, national ID card legislation is nearly upon us. Accordingly, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee has begun hearing evidence about the card and its uses and/or drawbacks.

Wendy M Grossman

Tuesday the Committee heard evidence from Privacy International, Liberty, the Law Society, and the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas. This is the committee's second meeting on this issue; in December it heard evidence from the Identity Card Policy Unit (Home Office), the Identity Cards Programme, and Nicola Roche, Director of Children, Families, Entitlement Cards, and Coroners. (We assume that whoever came up with that concatenated title was straining for the Alec Guinness movie title, Kind Children and Coroners).

The December evidence has made it clearer how the people that want ID cards are thinking. The Home Office believes that within five years of the initial rollout - which it predicts for 2007 - 80 percent of the population will have adopted the cards. During that voluntary phase, cards will be issued to anyone applying for a new passport or driver's license, and to all 16-year-olds. For sheer comic value, our favourite exchange has to be the exchange beginning at question 77, about costs. The scheme might cost £1.3 billion - or it might cost three times as much - but the assumptions behind these figures are confidential. For commercial reasons.

Seeing the Tuesday session live made it plain how difficult it can be to get the information you want into a committee hearing. The committee itself was deeply polite in that English way, and asked many questions designed to stress-test the witnesses' case. On Tuesday, the witnesses were all presumed opponents to the scheme, and they made a number of good points. Liberty, for example, holds that issuing all-purpose ID cards will fundamentally change the relationship between citizen and state. The Law Society's Vicky Chapman cited a CBI study showing that the problem with illegal working can be largely traced to a relatively small number of employers who do not, even now, do the checks on workers that are available to them. What, Chapman asked, would make them willing to check a national ID card when the fact is that these companies benefit from hiring illegal workers because they can pay them less?

The most significant testimony on Tuesday was probably that of Richard Thomas, since as Information Commissioner he is the government representative whose job it is to represent the public interest with respect to data processing. Thomas told the committee he is not in principle opposed to national ID cards, but that he wants specific restrictions in the legislation, when it's published. To wit: safeguards against function creep, both by a specific prohibition against giving the police powers to stop people and demand to see their cards and by clear restrictions on the uses to which the card may be put. He also wants to see clear rules about what information may be put on the face of the card - such as, for example, not allowing National Insurance numbers to appear on the face, because that would enable identity theft.

The latter was an important theme on Tuesday, in part because the Home Office is very specifically claiming that the card will help prevent this growing crime. As Privacy International has pointed out, however, the problem is that the more significant an identifier the card is the bigger a target it is for would-be identity thieves and the more dire the consequences to anyone whose card does get hacked.

The committee members seemed to have some difficulty in understanding why people might object to an all-in-one card when we all accept the need for myriad forms of documentation every day. We all get driving licenses, passports, library cards, access control cards for places of work, National Insurance cards, and NHS cards. This is true. Many MPs say, I'm sure truthfully, that their constituents are continually frustrated by the maze of government departments and the fact that they must keep giving the same information over and over again to all of them.

The keys to that question are choice and control. You can decide not to get a library card; you can decide you don't like the amount of information your local video rental shop demands in order to register you and go to a different one. You cannot, in general, decide you don't like this government's information policy and choose a different one.

But there is a bigger issue that never got covered on Tuesday: the difference between entitlement and identity. The Home Office has named a number of entitlement problems: benefit fraud, so-called health tourism, illegal working. None of these concern identity. A company hiring me or a doctor giving me treatment truly does not care or need to know who I am; all that entity needs to know is that I am entitled to work or medical treatment. In the first case, the datum needed is my citizenship, covered today by my passport(s). In the second, the information lies with the Inland Revenue, who know that I have paid my taxes. Identity is not relevant except as a unique tag from which to hang those pieces of information. That could be achieved in many different ways, and it would be far, far better if the committee were comparing the national ID card proposals with some of them.

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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).