net.wars: Entitle that!

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 12 December 2002

"I don't see," said Baroness Sharples softly and haltingly, "why anyone should mind. The threats to our liberty are not real in this instance, I am quite convinced."

Wendy M Grossman

Sharples was speaking at a public meeting convened by Privacy International , and she was talking about national ID cards - which are of course currently being billed as "entitlement cards" . As Ross Anderson went on to point out, national ID cards have been proposed over and over again in a variety of guises - in the last decade alone, he counts cards for welfare claimants, bank-issued smart ID cards, NHS patient cards, PKI digital signature/ecommerce certificates, asylum seekers' cards, and now the entitlement cards.

Entitled to what? You may well ask. Theoretically, entitled to all the stuff we're already entitled to by virtue of paying taxes/being citizens/being legal residents. Small stuff, like health care, education, library access, national insurance payments. Stuff we've already paid for through our taxes. In other words, we don't gain anything we don't already have.

The more interesting question is, what do we give up to get this non-new entitlement? Well, said Marion Chester, legal director for the Association of Community Health Councils, one thing it enables is easier rationing of health care. It's a lot easier to exclude people when cards state their age (one local council recently decided that elderly people do not qualify for podiatry), national origin, or tax contributions. One thing we don't get in return is assured confidentiality: where NHS staff could be sure who had access to paper records, electronic data can migrate invisibly anywhere. The NHS requires practitioners to send on patient data for auditing and clinical examination. Then where does it go? In one case, part of the patient record for a tenant complaining of being harassed by his neighbors was seen by a local housing officer who happened to share an office with someone from social services. The housing officer noted that the complainant had liver damage and claimed in court that he was an alcoholic, nearly costing him his house. We also don't get - or at least, it is nowhere mentioned in the government's proposals - the right to correct our records. It's estimated that 40 percent of our medical records have obvious errors in them.


The good news is that Lord Falconer, the minister for criminal justice, sentencing, and law reform, stayed to hear all this. His own speech was, sadly, predictably bland. Important to have debate ... Privacy International to be thanked ... 375 emails from a week of discussion on the BBC site alone ... benefits better services to public, combat identity fraud, help deal with illegal working and immigration, not part of response to terrorist attack in US. Oh, no? Funny how the proposal surfaced so soon afterwards, isn't it? Along with a slew of other rights-busting proposals, such as doing away with jury trials, the Anti-Terrorism, Crime, and Security Act, the delays to the freedom of information act this government promise. I don't think it's right, though, to blame solely this government, as Liberal Democrat shadow home secretary Simon Hughes did: the relentless chipping away of civil liberties has been going on steadily since ... I was going to say a decade but let's trace it back to Thatcher in 1979, which is probably more nearly correct.

Like Peter Lilley, the former secretary of state for social security, I blame the civil service. "One of the pleasures of moving from government to opposition," he said wrily, "is seeing tired, old, rejected ideas recycled as new and fresh." The ID card proposal kept surfacing when he was in government. Unlike every other issue, where people would get together to discuss a problem and try to find a solution, departments were asked to find uses for the ID card if they had it.

How the question was asked mattered. If you asked police, for example, "Could an identity card help you?" they might well say yes. If you said, "If you have to divert some of your present budget for ID cards and the infrastructure to read them, would you want them?" they might well say no - because the big problem for police is rarely identifying criminals (you may have a different take on that) but catching them and proving them guilty in court. ID cards must appeal in some fundamental way to Humphrey Applebys. "You may think Yes, Minister is a comedy," said Lilley. "I know it's a documentary."

Ross Anderson put together a nicely constructed set of counter-arguments: it won't work, it will cost more than anyone believes, and the more functions you try to include in the card the more it's going to cost and the more likely it is to fail. "In any case," he said, "it's usually a matter not of identity but of roles." To the AA I'm a driver, to my GP I'm a patient, to my library I'm a patron, to my local council I'm a taxpayer. They don't need to know who I am as much as they need to have confirmation that I meet the requirements for those roles."

So, there we are. Hopefully, this - and the earlier column, also headlined Entitle this! - will give you plenty of fuel for when you write your comments to the Home Office by January 31.

While you're about it, ask them for six more months of consultation and that really public debate that Blunkett promised us back in July.

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