net.wars: Bonfire of the last government's vanities

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 13 June 2010

 net.wars:  Bonfire of the last government's vanities?

Wendy M Grossman

"We have no hesitation in making the national identity card scheme an unfortunate footnote in history. There it should remain - a reminder of a less happy time when the Government allowed hubris to trump civil liberties," the Home Secretary, Theresa May, told the House of Commons at the second reading of the Identity Documents Bill 2010, which will erase the 2006 act introducing ID cards and the National Identity Register. "This will not be a literal bonfire of the last Government's vanities, but it will none the less be deeply satisfying." Estimated saving: £86 million over the next four years.

But not so fast…

An "unfortunate footnote" sounds like the perfect scrapheap on which to drop the National Identity Register and its physical manifestation, ID cards, but if there's one thing we know about ID cards it's that, like the monster in horror movies, they're always "still out there".

In 2005, Lilian Edwards, then at the Centre for Research in Intellectual Property and Law at the University of Edinburgh, invited me to give a talk Identifying Risks, on the history of ID cards, an idea inspired by a comment from Ross Anderson. The gist: after the ID card was scrapped in 1952 at the end of World War II, attempts to bring it back an ID card were made, on average, about every two or three years. (Former cabinet minister Peter Lilley, speaking at Privacy International's 2002 conference, noted that every new IT minister put the same set of ID card proposals before the Cabinet.)

The most interesting thing about that history is that the justification for bringing in ID cards varied so much; typically, it drew on the latest horrifying public event. So, in 1974 it was the IRA bombings in Guildford and Birmingham. In 1988, football hooliganism and crime. In 1989, social security fraud. In 1993, illegal immigration, fraud, and terrorism.

Within the run of just the 2006 card, the point varied. The stated goals began with blocking benefit fraud, then moved on to include preventing terrorism and serious crime, stopping illegal immigration, and needing to comply with international standards that require biometric features in passports. It is this chameleon-like adaptation to the troubles of the day that makes ID cards so suspect as the solution to anything.

Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, Tony Blair rejected the idea of ID cards (which he had actively opposed in 1995, when John Major's government issued a green paper). But by mid-2002 a consultation paper had been published and by 2004 Blair was claiming that the civil liberties objections had vanished.

Once the 2006 ID card was introduced as a serious set of proposals in 2002, events unfolded much as Simon Davies predicted they would at that 2002 meeting. The government first clothed the ID card in user-friendly obfuscation: an entitlement card. The card's popularity in the polls, at first favourable (except, said David Blunkett for a highly organised minority), slid inexorably as the gory details of its implementation and costs became public. Yet the (dear, departed) Labour government clung to the proposals despite admitting, from time to time, their utter irrelevance for preventing terrorism.

Part of the card's sliding popularity has been due to people's increased understanding of the costs and annoyance it would impose. Their apparent support for the card was for the <b>goals</b> of the card, not the card itself. Plus, since 2002 the climate has changed: the Iraq war is even less popular and even the 2005 "7/7" London attacks did not keep acceptance of the "we are at war" justification for increased surveillance from declining. And the economic climate since 2008 makes large expenditure on bureaucracy untenable.Given the frequency with which the ID card has resurfaced in the past, it seems safe to say that the idea will reappear at some point, though likely not during this coalition government. The LibDems always opposed it; the Conservatives have been more inconsistent, but currently oppose large-scale public IT projects.

Depending how you look at it, ID cards either took 54 years to resurface (from their withdrawal in1952 to the 2006  Identity Cards Act), or the much shorter time to the first proposals to reinstate them. Australia might be a better guide. In 1985, Bob Hawke made the "Australia card" a central plank of his government. He admitted defeat in 1987, after widespread opposition fueled by civil liberties groups. ID card proposals resurfaced in Australia in 2006, to be withdrawn again at the end of 2007. That's about 21 years – or a generation.

In 2010 Britain, it's as important that much of the rest of the Labour government's IT edifice, such as the ContactPoint database, intended to track children throughout their school years, is being scrapped. Left in place, it might have taught today's generation of children to perceive state tracking as normal. The other good news is that many of today's tireless <a href="http://www.no2id.net">campaigners</a> against the 2006 ID card will continue to fight the encroachment of the database state. In 20 years – or sooner, if (God forbid) some catastrophe makes it politically acceptable – when or if an ID card comes back, they will still be young enough to fight it. And they will remember how.

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).