net.wars: A highly organized minority (that can be safely ignored)

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 11 July 2003

Would you pay £40 (about $65) to be in a database the government could use to build up a detailed dossier about your life? They'll give you a nice, plastic card, and to make sure no one else can use it, they'll let you put your fingerprint, or maybe an iris scan, on it.

Wendy M Grossman

Last weekend, the Sunday Times published a leaked memo indicating that national ID cards are likely to cost exactly that much. Along with a few other mad divergences from the original proposal. Remember all that genteel stuff in the consultation document about "entitlement cards" and their not being compulsory, and how it could be a simple plastic card and not necessarily a "sophisticated smart card" with a biometric on them? Well, now the admittedly thin mask is coming off. The leaked memo dumps the voluntary, and goes straight for the biometrics.

It still won't be compulsory to carry the card at all times, but you'll have to present it at your local police station within a few days, just like driver's licenses now. (For Americans: the UK has this quaint system where you're given seven days to produce the document at any police station if you don't have it with you when you're stopped on the roads. For British folks: most parts of the US have this quaint system where you have to produce your license and registration on the spot. As an American living in the UK, I can't understand why people don't just carry this stuff. Why risk having to make a special trip to a police station?)

Readers of this column may remember my original financial assessment of the cards' cost when I first wrote about them in this space last July. The consultation document talked about £3.145 billion for the sophisticated smart card version of the proposals (which the Home Office clearly favoured over a simple plastic card costing one-third as much). Using the number of drivers and passport holders, I calculated it would cost £22.34 per card just to recover the set-up costs, assuming the simple plastic variety. Multiple by three, and you get a cost per card of more than £60, and that's without running costs.

It is extremely likely, therefore, that Blunkett's leaked memo does not go far enough in estimating the cost. To fund the scheme he wants he will have to get more money, either from the Treasury, or from increased taxation, or directly in fees. Or - and this is hinted at in the consultation document - "business partners". And even that assumes that the project's eventual budget is roughly the amount estimated (ha!) that there are no cost overruns or unforeseen expenses (HA!) and that the running costs are modest (HAHA!).

My guess is the card will have to cost at least £60, probably more. Simon Davies, executive director of Privacy International, on whose advisory board I sit, thinks that's too conservative, and that the real cost to punters will be closer to £100, based on figures collected in Australia in 1987 and the Home Office's own figures. In private, he's been told that the checking necessary to assure the integrity of the card will be biographical. That means they don't just glance at your birth certificate; they check with the issuing authority. That is a long - and therefore expensive - process, which will have to be repeated every time a card is replaced or renewed. The expense of that, plus the usual underestimation of actual costs will, he thinks, push the cost per card up. The good news there is, people really would rebel against paying £100 for, essentially, something that gives them no personal reward.

There is, of course, another issue. Biometrics, as James L. Wayman told me recently, always have outliers. If the ID card includes an iris scan, neither the cards' chief proponent, Blunkett, nor their chief opponent, Davies, will be able to get one. Blunkett can't be successfully iris-scanned because he's blind, and Davies can't be successfully iris-scanned because he has a medical condition called pendular nystyamus, which means that his eyes move constantly, never holding still long enough for a scanner to capture a usable pattern. Any system involving biometrics must have an alternative system to deal with these outliers. Plus, as Davies points out, there may be a substantial minority who refuse, some for religious reasons, others for civil libertarian reasons, to cooperate. "If there is a dissent rate of 3 percent or more, there will have to be an alternative system - and that will add 60 percent to the cost."

We should know more next week. Blunkett has said he wants to issue a report on the responses to the consultation to Parliament before it rises for the summer. Since they get up and go home on July 17, my guess is the report will arrive on July 16, when no one is in much of a mood to pay attention to it. Isn't that the best way when you're proposing a scheme that ( Yes, Minister ) is EXPENSIVE, COMPLICATED, LENGTHY, and COURAGEOUS? But Blunkett doesn't need to resort to tricks like leaked memos and carefully timed reports. Hasn't he said that the idea is extremely popular and only opposed by a "highly organised minority"?

Note to readers: The column a couple of weeks ago about VAT sparked a lot of response about sales tax rates around the US. My original statement that Washington didn't have sales tax was, of course, incorrect: I was thinking of its neighbour, Oregon. Parts of California have tax as high as 8.5 percent, which would put them ahead of New York City - but NYC's sales tax has jumped to 8.625 percent. But even so, NYC is not the nation's highest sales tax district. Several readers emailed about Tennessee, where sales tax varies from 9.25 percent to 9.75 percent. And Oklahoma's sales tax is also in that neighbourhood.

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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).