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Roundup: Britain’s National Identity Scheme

Posted by James Hammerton @ 10:08 pm on 7 February, 2008.
Categories privacy and surveillance, British politics, the database state.
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To catch-up on a backlog of material I’m doing a number of roundups. This one is on stories related to Britain’s National Identity Scheme over the last few months.

  • Back in December, NO2ID launched a new pledge. They explain the pledge as follows:

    You might be prepared to go to gaol rather than have an ID card. But you can’t.

    David Blunkett has been smugly pronouncing that there will be no ID card martyrs because the intent is to have a system of penalties – like monstrous parking fines – hard to contest in court. So further punishments would relate to failure to pay, not ID cards. That silly distinction is currently irrelevant, since powers of direct compulsion have been dropped, for now. It hasn’t stopped Mr Blunkett repeating it, though.

    Subtler minds have been at work. The Home Office plans to make you to “volunteer”. It hopes almost all the population will “volunteer”, before most people have even noticed what is happening. Well before it rounds-up and force-fingerprints a few pariahs. Official documents will one by one be “designated”, so that you cannot get one without at the same time asking to be placed – for life – on the National Identity Register.

    The civil servant, Sylvanus Vivian who originated this idea in 1934 – yes, that’s right, nineteen thirty-four – called it “parasitic vitality”. In other words, the scheme is a vampire. It has no life of its own, and thrives only if it feeds.

    They later outline the pledge itself, consisting of actions that will remove the scheme’s “parasitic vitality”, if enough people carry them out:

    “I solemnly and publicly promise that:

    • I shall not register for a national identity card
    • I shall not supply personal details or fingerprints to a National Identity Register
    • I shall not apply for any document or service if joining the National Identity Register is a condition of obtaining it
    • I shall not co-operate with any Identity and Passport Service interview concerning my identity

    I also promise by my example to encourage others to do the same.”

  • Both the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly have both passed motions declaring that they will not require the use of the identity cards for the public services under their jurisdiction. In the case of the Scottish Parliament this reaffirms a motion passed back in 2005 prior to the Scottish election of 2007.
  • Two recent opinion polls have reported that more respondents are opposed to ID cards than in favour:

    Clearly the recent scandals involving loss/theft of personal data from various government departments, sometimes on a large scale, has shaken public confidence in the scheme.

  • The Register reported recently that both Accenture and BAE have pulled out of the project:

    The UK ID card project suffered another serious blow today with news that two potential suppliers have pulled out of the procurement process.

    Accenture and BAE Systems have both decided not to chase contracts for the controversial scheme. A short list of possible suppliers is due to be published in the next few months but several firms have expressed discontent with continued government indecision. This blog post might just explain Accenture and BAE’s early withdrawal.

    Accenture, one of the government’s central IT suppliers, told the FT it was pulling out for a mixture of “political and commercial reasons”.

    A BAE spokesman told El Reg: “We have withdrawn but it’s for commercial reasons - at this stage our assessment is that our bid wouldn’t deliver everything the project requires. We will continue to monitor the project with interest.”

  • The leaked Home Office document that was behind the stories commented on in this earlier post of mine, has now been put up on the web, and at this time of writing can be found here, here, here and here.
  • One of the stories to come out via the leaked document, is the possibility of the fingerprint database being dropped (after years of successive Home Secretaries telling us the biometrics are the key the system’s security). The Register discusses this issue here:

    A key component of the UK ID card scheme, the central database of fingerprints, may be abandoned, according to a leaked Home Office document obtained by the Observer. The document doesn’t suggest entirely scrapping fingerprints, but instead suggests that their value should be assessed for each group of the population enrolled.

    So how does that work? Well, for the ID scheme as originally planned, it clearly doesn’t. From David Blunkett onwards Home Office ministers have presented biometrics as the system’s USP, the one single factor that makes it entirely certain (in their view) that you are who you say you are. And, they have claimed, the ability to check those biometrics against a central register would give us the ‘gold standard’ of identity. But if you don’t necessarily collect everybody’s fingerprints, then you don’t have a complete national biometric register, so you might as well save yourself a pile of money, chuck away any notion of online biometric checks as a matter of routine, and forget any ideas you still had about a national biometric register.

    Quite a few of the claimed ‘benefits’ of the ID scheme go out of the window if you do this. The police cannot trawl the register in order to match crime scene fingerprints, nor can they use their mobile fingerprint readers to identify you or to prove that you are who you say you are. Effectively, the ID card would be chip-backed picture ID, with the security of the chip only of value in circumstances where a reader was used.

    See also UK Liberty’s take on this.

  • But then again, maybe the fingerprint database isn’t going to be dropped?
  • Finally, when the Tories pointed out that people may have to commute long distances to get to the interview centres Mr Eugenides illustrated just how bad this situation could be for some:

    The true insanity of the scheme is demonstrated most starkly by the fate that awaits the good people of Orkney and Shetland – some 40,000 souls in all. There are apparently to be no processing centres for ID cards on the islands – any of the Scottish islands, as far as I can see – and so every single inhabitant of Orkney, Shetland and all the others is going to have to go to the mainland to be registered.

    The nearest centre is in Wick, which is nearly 200 miles away from Shetland. But it’s not too difficult to get there. From Shetland’s capital, Lerwick, simply hop on a ferry to Kirkwall in Orkney (7 and a half hours), then it’s a short bus transfer to Burwick (45 minutes), a ferry across to John O’Groats (45 minutes) and another bus to Wick (about an hour). But make sure you don’t show up at lunchtime; there’s usually a queue.

    OK, I’m being a wee bit disingenuous. You can fly to Aberdeen in only an hour. Why not book flights for yourself, your spouse and two kids and make a wee holiday of it (if a day in Aberdeen can be called a holiday)? Well, the bad news is that if you want to go next Monday, Expedia are currently quoting £1,236.80 for the privilege of taking your family to be barcoded. All of which puts the cost of ID cards in stark perspective. Still, it’s cheaper than not going at all; a fine of up to £1000, denial of access to government services and all the rest of it. No, suck it up, citizen; this is the future, and there are no exceptions for the old, the infirm, the sick and the lame.

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