Why are so many bloggers against ID cards?
Doing a quick blog search, I found hundreds of bloggers commenting on ID cards, not a single one was in favour. Talkpolitics, Chicken Yoghurt, Chris Applegate are just a few who have recently posted their total opposition.
This made me think of two scenarios, either I am totally deluded in supporting ID cards or there is something unrepresentative about bloggers (remember opinion polls find a majority of the population in favour of ID cards).
I know that political bloggers by their very nature are likely to be two things; firstly more affluent and middle class than the general population and also probably as a result of this, more highly educated.
Well it could be that this higher level of education has resulted in them considering the implications of ID cards in more depth and therefore coming to a justified negative conclusion about them (there are after all a number of justified concerns about ID cards, concerns I also share). However I think there is a more powerful force at work here, than just bloggers education levels.
The fact that I couldn't find a single blogger blogging in favour of ID cards tells me that this force is powerful enough to unite both conservative and liberal bloggers. It also presents me with an unexpected opportunity to be a pioneer blogger in outlining a detailed case in favour of ID cards (admittedly with a number of important reservations).
Generally it is the more conservative, authoritarian types who favour ID cards and the liberal ones who oppose. People who know this site shouldn't have much of a problem with my claim to be a libertarian (my score on political compass was -6.7 on the libertarian/authoritarian scale).
So what is this force uniting bloggers on this subject?
Well firstly and foremostly, conservatives who might otherwise have supported ID cards, have a Conservative party who have seen a populist issue to win votes on a subject that is no cost to them.
Whenever Labour or Conservatives have been in opposition they have used Europe and social issues as 'wedge' issues to score easy votes in the knowledge that when in government they would have carried out the said criticised policy themselves. ID cards is such an issue. Opponents are concentrating their main line of fire on the 'flawed technology' at the moment. Their real underlying objection, that of the principle of ID cards is hidden beneath this veneer because it is no so powerful an argument.
The overwhelming majority of the public are just concerned with the practical benefits. I predict that the controversy over the security and cost of biometrics will subside as the technology advances and the government refines its objectives. Although 3 biometrics have been proposed, just facial recognition followed by fingerprinting are likely to be initially used. Less reliable iris scanning might be a while into the future. As the system is proved to work both here and abroad, then the opponents will change tack, but it will be too late. Opponents know they have to win the argument early on or the facts will overtake them.
Those 11,000 who have pledged their opposition will have a much harder time than poll tax protestors-the measures are coming in over a long period starting in 2008, the costs are much lower, and withholding payment just means no passport and no overseas travel, no problem for the government. By the time compulsion comes in in 2013, nearly everyone will have got a biometric ID card and seen them in common use for years. The 11,000 will soon forget what the fuss was about and quietly drop their cause.
Anyway, back to the point. Because the Tories have popularised being anti-ID card from a right wing perspective, it has been very easy for the liberal bloggers to find voice and support for liberty issues that otherwise would be killed off by the right wing media. This combination in right/left motivation coupled with support from the centrist Lib Dems has led to an unstoppable orthodoxy amongst political bloggers. It also fits nicely with popular perception of the govt as being illiberal.
So what are the main criticisms of ID cards?
Before I start here's a link to the government's identity card page, which as well as containing outlines of their plans so far, (and details of trials-see below), and answers to the main criticisms, also contains a detailed rebuffal of the LSE study which a lot of opponents of ID cards use to criticise the government's current plans. (It has to be pointed out that the LSE saw many benefits in the introduction of biometric ID cards and presented its own alternative plans, this seems to have been overlooked by opponents).
Firstly it has to be said that a lot of the criticisms of ID cards are aimed at the foreseen failure of the technical aspects of biometrics and the lack of organisational capability of the govt rather than at the concept of ID cards themselves. This immediately makes me very suspicious of motives. If it is the restrictions on civil liberties that is the main reason, opponents should say so loud and clear, but also explain how this restriction outweighs the benefits of ID cards. So first, lets look at the civil liberty objections and their importance and then move on to the practicalities.
Loss of privacy.
Some of the claims of opponents of ID cards have included the following;
1. That the govt and potential hackers will be able to track your movement around the country, view your medical, criminal, social security, bank, credit, supermarket, ISP and mobile phone details.
This has nothing whatsoever to do with ID cards, the govt has categorically stated that none of these details will be included on the cards or the National Identity Register (NIR). If the govt wanted to access any of these details, they wouldn't need to set up an ID card to do it.
2. It is unsafe to keep biometric and name/address data on cards and on a central database rather than on a number of secure databases.
There is no need to put the actual biometric data on the cards or have someone's NIR number on the database. Technology is available to distort biometric data on cards, rendering it useless for anyone else to read. The central database will be high security. This is the safest and cheapest method, its the same principle as banks keeping money in a safe rather than leaving it in the till. Everyone will be able to view their own data. It has been argued that some people that need to remain anonymous, e.g. battered wives, would be put in jeopardy. But the system would be no less secure than at present where work details and electoral registers could be hacked into.
3. We won't know who is checking our identity and for what reason.
Under the Data Protection Act, you would be able to ask for these details. It is understood that (apart from the fight against terrorism and benefit/tax fraud), anyone accessing your data would need your consent.
There will be no compulsion to carry the ID card. The police will have no new powers to ask you to prove your identity. It has been suggested that the police will use ID cards as an excuse to harass ethnic minorities. This is not the fault of ID cards, this is the fault of police attitudes. The solution is to tackle the police attitudes not the ID cards.
I have a black friend who is constantly stopped by the police because he drives a nice car. The solution is not for him to get rid of his nice car but for him to complain to the police and the media and hope something is done about their racist attitude, that is the REAL problem.
Ah, opponents say, it is all very well the government giving all these guarantees now, but how do we stop future govts adding all these extra details to the cards gradually and without our consent.
The govt have stated that the cards and NIR will carry only the information your passport does. It would need primary legislation through parliament to add to this. Then would be the time to object.
Biometrics are too costly and impractical
The govt are still devising the system and no decision has been taken on which or how many biometrics will be used. Trials are being carried out and the most recent have shown near 100% enrolment and verification rates (excluding iris scans). Face recognition biometrics are the most reliable and likely to be used followed by fingerprinting. Iris scanning is the least reliable at the moment. However, the technology is advancing all the time.
The EU has passed standards on biometric travel documents that include face recognition and fingerprinting, the deadline is in 2006. Because of these standards and similar US requirements on travel documents to come into effect next year, the costs of incorporating biometrics are already being incurred.
Nearly every country in the EU has ID cards (21 out of 25 countries, only the UK, Eire, Denmark and Latvia do not). Face recognition and fingerprinting biometrics will be used by the majority of countries in the EU in the next few years. Some already have them. The costs of ID cards in these countries are in line with the £30 prediction of the home office. From wikipedia on ID cards;
"Argumentation about identity cards is largely limited to anglosaxon countries. In most countries where an ID system is present, it is seen as a commonplace item that nobody argues about."
Benefits of ID cards overstated?
ID cards are claimed to have a positive impact in the following areas;
Preventing illegal immigration and illegal working. Tackling Identity theft, benefit fraud and abuse of public services. And finally aiding anti-terrorism measures and enhancing a sense of community.
Both ID card opponents and enthusiasts largely agree that there will be a positive impact in all these areas with the introduction of ID cards. Where they disagree is over the degree of improvement and whether the costs both monetary and liberty wise are worth these benefits. There might be only one way to find out. For a detailed appraisal of benefits, rebuffal of the LSE report, details of trials and a FAQ on ID cards visit the govt ID card site.
The government,(for whatever reason) have been very timid in selling ID cards, and this vacuum has been filled by the anti-card propaganda. The govt may have felt complacent as levels of support were so high, but this could quickly turn around if the government do not properly sell the case for ID cards, which they have so far failed to do.
Hopefully as the costs and practicalities become more clear, and as the cards are gradually introduced, public support will strengthen and the anti-brigade will fade. This gradual introduction and lower cost is why ID cards should not become the Labour poll tax. Once people see the benefits and efficiencies ID cards bring both here and abroad, opposition should quickly fade.
All this is not to say that the govt will get this right. The biggest problem for them could be the operating of the NIR. Hopefully the gradual introduction of the cards will make this a much easier project. The principle of ID cards is right and the biometrics are practical, lets hope the govt don't make a mess of it by trying to be all things to all sides.