net.wars: To ID or not to ID

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 17 October 2003

"My name is Tony Blair, and I am powerless over my desire to bring in a national identity card."

Wendy M Grossman

And also: "My name is Jack Straw, and you can't be the one to bring in a national identity card."

And again: "My seeing-eye dog guarantees that I am David Blunkett, and I am powerless over my desire to bring in a national identity card."

Will the real proponent of national ID cards please stand up and Tell The Truth?

If you haven't been following the prospects for a British national ID card - oh, yes, the gloves have come off and they've stopped bothering to disguise it as an "entitlement card" - there's been what you could call a cabinet reshuffle. Blunkett's always been for it and increasingly rabidly so. At this point, he's like an alcoholic clutching his last empty cologne bottle: he's gotta have it, even if it costs an insane amount, is hideously unpopular, and will be completely ineffective at stopping the fraud he says he wants it in place to prevent.

Blair, however, came out against the project as recently as last July. At least for the moment, given the costs and logistical issues. In what looks now like an unfortunately brief moment of sanity, he seemed to understand that ID cards wouldn't offer a quick fix for everything from asylum seekers to benefit fraud, and that the government's record with IT projects isn't, er, wonderful. None of this deterred Blunkett, of course. In this, he seems to be channelling former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who reportedly (OK, Simon Davies reported it) has described his failure to bring in national ID cards as one of his deepest regrets about his political career.

See, the thing is, we kind of thought that the Canadians had cracked this one for us. A couple of weeks ago, they published this beautiful report explaining all the reasons why national ID cards were a really, really bad idea. Like the UK, Canada hoped to use an ID card to tackle benefit fraud. Unlike the UK, the Canadian Parliamentary committee charged with studying the matter, although cautioning that it had not reached a firm conclusion, said it was still trying to figure out why a national ID card was needed.

But, as a poster observed on the UKCrypto list last week, "Blunkett doesn't listen to people in *this* country when they tell him the same things - why would he listen to Canadians?"

Nonetheless, only three days ago it looked as though the ID card plans had been shelved. At least for the moment: unlike most political proposals, ID cards keep popping up as a solution in search of a problem. Ross Anderson, at one of the Scrambling for Safety meetings, listed the number of times ID cards had been on the agenda in the last decade alone. And, may I remind you that the next Scrambling for Safety meeting, to talk about the data retention rules, is this Wednesday, the 22nd, at the LSE and to send in your RSVP?

The really weird, "Who are these guys?" moment, though, was last Sunday, when a leaked letter showed that Jack Straw was against ID cards. Now, Straw was such a persistently invasive Home Secretary that he was actually given the Big Brother award for "Lifetime Menace" in 2000. What a difference a change of civil service masters can make. Only three years later, here he is in the Sunday Times, calling the plan "flawed". The cynical may detect a hint of waspish jealousy in his note that when he was at the Home Office they considered a similar scheme. Everyone's gotta be the guy who finally brings in the ID cards.

Of course, follow the money. The Foreign Office doesn't want as much as £33 million of its passport revenues to be diverted to the Home Office's national ID cards. Nor does it want to pay for collecting all those biometrics for the national ID-style passports. Nor should we: imagine the queues outside the Passport Office! But you know something has gone insanely wrong in British politics when someone opposes a plan with the argument that "we'd need to talk to the Irish."

But then, two days ago Blair defended ID cards "in principle" during Prime Minister's question time. Reviewing past stories, I realise that he's always somewhat liked the idea, if not Blunkett's specific plan. But he made it plain that legislation to bring in these cards in next month's Queen's Speech is still a possibility. For non-Britons: the Queen's Speech is the official government announcement that opens Parliament each year and lists the legislative agenda for the coming session. The Queen, dressed traditionally in ermine, crown, full regalia, and reading glasses, reads the speech but has nothing to do with its contents.

Devotees of the classic television series "Yes, Minister" might conclude that behind the scenes the same small pack of civil servants revive ID cards every time they get a new minister. But there may be another explanation: identity theft. Maybe we only think it's Blair. Whoever that is.

And then yesterday the Telegraph reported that "senior Whitehall insiders" say the legislation won't be in the Queen's Speech after all. I think they're psyching us out, so we won't be ready to oppose them. Confuse and conquer.

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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).