net.wars: Entitle this!

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 26 July 2002

Wendy Grossman tries to get worried about the threat from dead children, and fails ...

Wendy M Grossman

Consider this vomit-provoking statement: "A card scheme could help prevent people becoming victims of identity theft and identity fraud, for example preventing parents suffering the distress caused when a criminal assumes the identity of their deceased child."

Oh, it's about children. Well, that says it all, doesn't it? It's completely unreasonable then for anyone to object. Turn out the lights on the way out, will you? The deceased children are sleeping.

You may be wondering where this comment comes from. It appears on page 8 (out of 145) of David Blunkett's new masterwork, "Consultation paper: Entitlement Cards and Identity Fraud."

Generously, we've been given six months to comment on whether we want an "entitlement card" scheme and what form it should take. The government is NOT, the paper proclaims loudly, consulting on whether the scheme should be made compulsory. Of course not. That would be a police state. According to Privacy International's deconstruction of the language, all the government has really promised is that it won't be compulsory to carry it. You'll still have to register. Kind of like the draft in the US, back in the 1960s. Only this time the cards won't burn because they'll be made of plastic. Without registration, your access to education, legal employment, financial services, and probably health care, will be impeded. Under that setup, what choice will you have?

You have to love the government's arguments on this one. The card will be convenient (because you can carry one card instead of several - except you'll still have to have two, one a driver's license, and one a passport card). It will protect us from fraudsters, illegal workers who steal our jobs, and terrorists ... well, no, maybe not terrorists. Blunkett doesn't seem too sure. Then there's my favorite: it won't cost the taxpayers anything because it will be self-financing. Er, in other words, we pay for it directly, in increased fees on passports and driving licenses, rather than indirectly by handing money in the form of taxes to the government and having the government allocate some funds. Unless these are magic cards, that generate their own cash.

The card is beside the point. It'll be a nuisance, of course, especially when you lose it and can't prove you're bank account-worthy. And it will be like strong encryption: smart, well-funded, and dedicated fraudsters will have it, stupid, poor ones won't. The real point is the information system behind the card, which will construct a giant national database and allow government departments to share information at will. Perhaps the application for the card should have on it one of those consumer-warning disclaimers like credit applications, that tell you that the information you supply may be shared with other companies to enable your prospective creditor to search your financial history. "You got a D in arithmetic in primary school; not sure we can trust you to keep your account in credit, old chap."

What exactly is the enduring appeal of the national identity card? Is it, as Ellen Ullman talks about in her wonderful book Close to the Machine merely the "fever of the system," whereby databases infect their owners with the desire to be linked? Or is it simply that they know that ultimately we are their paymasters and therefore they have a longing to be able to control us?

We pause to remember the four buzzwords Sir Humphrey Appleby listed in Yes, Minister as a way of deterring politicians from adopting a particular scheme: lengthy, complicated, expensive, and courageous. (Controversial loses votes; courageous loses elections.) Make no mistake, it will be expensive. The government's own figures estimate the cost at £1.318 billion for plain plastic cards to £3.145 billion for "sophisticated smart cards." The number of licensed UK drivers is 38.5 million. If every photocard driver's license is renewable every ten years (every three years after you're 70), and everyone switches to photocards (most people still have paper) at £29 per renewal (£6 over 70), and there are 44 million passport holders ... If you were going to try to recover all the set-up costs from card fees, I make it £22.34 per card, just for the plain plastic variety. (Doubtless someone will come along in a minute to tell me my arithmetic's all wrong.)

Obviously, that's not a goer. Yes, that's without allowing for the people who don't drive or travel who will get cheaper entitlement cards that aren't driver's licenses or passport cards, but it's also without allowing for the amount by which the IT budget will inevitably expand. If the IT works at all. The key to this bit seems to me to be the note on page 10 that the costs might be partially offset by "additional revenue paid to the Government by partners who might wish to use the card to help administer their services." This is a businessspeak too far. Partners? Does the British government have partners the way, say, Microsoft has partners? Basically, the scheme would require each of us to pay for a card and registration in order to gain access to services we're already paying for via our taxes, and if we balk at the cost, well, we have this handy alternative.

Your comments on this lengthy, complicated, expensive, and COURAGEOUS scheme are due at the Home Office by January 10, 2003. Get typing!

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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).