ID Cards: Speak your brains
20 August 2004
This week 'information commissioner' Richard Thomas warned that the UK could 'sleepwalk into a surveillance society' as a result of ID cards. He's also concerned about plans to set up a population register and a database which will, according to BBC Online, 'contain every child'.
We know youth crime is an issue, but surely converting every child, Tron-style, into binary code and keeping them inside a computer is a bit excessive?
The ID card debate is a weird one. Three questions keep popping up.
The first: has the government got the faintest idea about how ID cards will work, and what their benefits will be? A good 80 per cent (at least) of New Labour policy ideas seem to be uniquely pointless and ill-thought-out. John Major came up with some witless ideas, not least the traffic cone hotline, but EVERY SINGLE WEEK.
Secondly, we have to ask: why does the government seem to believe the answer to every problem is simply 'technology'? It makes you wonder if Blair and Blunkett get together and have conversations like this:
'In the future, right, it's going to be brilliant, 'cos technology will mean it'll be like Star Wars and we'll all have laser blasters and we'll have to rescue Princess Leia from the Death Star!'
'Can I be Han Solo!'
'No, David, I'm prime minister so I'll be Han Solo. You can be C3PO.'
The third curious thing about the ID card 'debate' is why people seem unable to resist dredging up comparisons to Big Brother (Orwell's, not Endemol's) and/or fascist states.
Richard Thomas appeared to be making some valid points about excessive information gathering by the state when he decided to blow it by comparing the government's plans to Franco's Spain. This, he said, was an example of what happens when a state knows too much about its citizens.
Now, although there have been some serious questions raised about civil liberties in the UK recently, not least the treatment of asylum seekers, you have to be a bit paranoid to believe that the government has any desire to create any real sort of police state. Blair and co may be control freaks, they may be guilty of state 'nannyism', but they don't honestly seem to be planning to give Tory and Lib Dem voters the rubber truncheon treatment.
(In any case, if your aim is to set up Stasi-style surveillance of the general population, all you need is some filing cabinets, some secret police, informants, a few dungeons and some truncheons. Any government could save themselves billions by just employing an army of thugs and forgetting about expensive techno-bollocks solutions to controlling the populace.)
Perhaps the 'speak your brains' nature of the ID card debate stems from the fact that ID cards are seen as a magic solution to innumerable problems, but no-one has really defined what these problems are, much less how ID cards will solve them.
Take fraud. What are we actually talking about here? The government keeps talking about fraud and 'organised crime', but it would be nice to actually be given some examples of this (and where ID cards fit in).
Does the government mean the work of cheque book fraudsters? Or professional forgers producing bogus ID documents? Or benefits scammers? Or 'identity theft'? Or just stealing someone's handbag or wallet then spending as much on their credit cards as possible?
We suspect the latter is the most common type of fraud, along with various cashpoint scams. It's not nice to be the victim of any sort of crime, but at least you're usually insured against this sort of thing. And retailers and banks are doing something about this: requiring a pin number when you buy something with a credit or debit card. ID cards, with a picture, could stop this sort of fraud, but so could the simple measure of putting a passport photo on credit cards.
It seems you can make any sort of claim about ID cards and you'll be taken seriously. If the government really wants to get this dubious project accepted by the public, maybe they should just claim that ID cards will whiten your teeth and make you more confident with the opposite sex. If you're opposed to ID cards, you might prefer to claim that ID cards are part of a bizarre plan to kill off everyone over 30, like in Logan's Run.
It wouldn't exactly be dragging the 'debate' down.