I saw NO2ID, with their stall set up in Churchill Square on Saturday, getting people to sign a petition. No one can question they are passionate about what they believe. But in the end I don't believe their arguments actually amount to very much. At first glance they sound impressive (the emotive image of big brother is on their side) and the Government is doing them a big favour by not answering their criticisms head on and by not making a detailed case for why we need ID cards. This is NOT a reason to support NO2ID. This government have made a hash of promoting all sorts of policies that have proved to be of immense benefit when passed into legislation.
To their credit NO2ID want a debate and unfortunately there are very few arguing passionately from a pro ID perspective. People are not getting to hear both sides of the argument. There is a detailed argument in favour of ID cards from a non-racist liberal viewpoint and I hope I have got at least some of these arguments into the debate.
I've been described in all sorts of derogatory ways for doing this; ignorant, neo-labour apologist, fascist, uncaring, authoritarian, etc. etc. None of these insults bothers me that much, I've been called some of these before for arguing that religion is nonsense, for being pro-choice on abortion, for arguing for a more open immigration policy and for proportional representation for Westminster. In fact for arguing for a whole range of policies supported by different ideologies and even taken from different party manifestos. I've offended right wingers, left wingers, Labour tribalists, Blairites and just about everyone else.
I hope nobody is offended if I take a real hero's name invain. I like to think of myself as the John Peel of politics, I just argue for what I think is right, no matter whose policy it is. Of course I'm not an absolute expert on every aspect of biometrics and the government's ID scheme, but I think I've read more than most of the general public on the subject, and in the debate here I have learned a lot more about the subject.
Whether any of you believe me or not, I can only tell you I am being sincere in expressing my views, I will try to explain why I've not been persuaded by what I've heard so far from opponents and I'm hoping some of you might appreciate my point of view on this. So to a summary of what I think are their best arguments against the ID scheme and why they are wrong.
1. Iris scanners are less reliable at scanning the irises of ethnic minorities.
Quite simply if the technology here doesn't improve and make this discrepancy negligible, then iris scanning should be dropped. The government scheme rules nothing in and nothing out about the use of this technology. Having an efficient system is in everyone's interest.
2. Biometrics are irrevocable, so once compromised, people will be stuck.
Not quite true. It is difficult and expensive but fingerprints can be removed and facial features altered. In fact biometrics change naturally over time anyway, opponents have used this argument to argue that passports/ID cards will have to updated more frequently. Also it is very difficult and expensive to make use of biometric information. Photos and fingerprints are poor quality and easily distinguised from the real thing by high tech scanners. And the NIR security, like the banking system, will be rarely breached. It is possible to make gel moulds of someone's fingerprints, but they are conspicuous and likely to be noticed during use, and contact lens can also be detected by high tech cameras. The scanner technology is advancing all the time.
3. The storing of biometrics information, is an extra piece of personal information not previously available to hackers/fraudsters.
Not true again. Anybody that can get hold of a photo of our face or fingerprint dabs off an object we have touched, has our biometric information. Biometric information is of little or no use to a criminal anyway.
The National Identity Register
1. The NIR is a threat to our privacy and this will be detrimental to our lives.
As we already have 44 million people on databases that the government have access to, this seems to me to be the most ridiculous claim of the lot. Nobody can tell me specific examples of how people's lives have been detrimentally affected by CCTV, mobile phones, banking records, criminal and medical records, ISP records etc, and these are far more intrusive to people's lives than an NIR will be.
2. Bringing all this data together on one database is an increased security risk.
The government have already announced the security will be tighter than present database security. This same argument could be used to get rid of any database. Look at the banking system database, it has its problems of security breaches, but the system works very well for the vast majority. Very few think that the banking database hasn't been beneficial. Whoever accesses this system leaves a footprint, anybody caught looking at or changing records they shouldn't, risks getting themselves into serious trouble.
3. People on witness protection schemes and victims of domestic violence 'might' have their new identity compromised.
We are talking here about a small number of people who 'might' be affected. The claim is that an old photo could be used to locate someone's new address. However high tech cameras can recognise the difference between a photo and the real thing so a photo would be useless. Also this assumes that access to the NIR will be easy. Only someone on the inside with the technical know-how could reveal this information. For those under serious threat, they could have laser alterations to their biometric information if necessary. Outside checks wouldn't have to reveal addresses anyway, just names would be sufficient. Any suspicious activity would be quickly highlighted.
4. Racist police could abuse the NIR database by framing ethnic minorities who were in areas where crimes occurred.
This could happen anyway. By highlighting the problem of racism in the police, maybe we can go someway to fixing it. You don't fix a problem by ignoring it. For example, employers who monitor ethnic recruitment on application forms are generally the less racist employers. Courts should not convict on circumstantial evidence alone anyway.
Financial Costs and Benefits
1. The government's figures just don't add up.
Even using NO2ID's accepted figures for known ID fraud in 2003 of £150 million (they also admit known ID fraud is likely to be a significant underestimate), the benefits look immense. ID fraud cases rose 500% between 1999 and 2003. At this rate known ID fraud would be £750 million in 2008 by the start of the scheme. Compare this to the £85 million maintenance costs of the scheme and opponents claims that the figures suggest financial loss look very weak indeed.
Even if maintenance costs were doubled, it would only need savings of a fraction of known ID fraud for the scheme to be financially beneficial. Remember known ID fraud is probably only the tip of the iceberg of real ID fraud. The financial benefits of the scheme are likely to be a lot more than this. And this is only one area of benefits, there are financial gains to be made also in government efficiency. There are also other non-financial benefits to be taken into account from reductions in organised crime, terrorism and illegal immigration.
2. ID fraud largely affects the private sector, it is their problem, so they should pay to solve it.
This forgets that whoever pays for it, private sector, government, it is ultimately the consumer who pays in higher prices or taxes. ID cards is an efficient way to tackle this fraud. Only a government could take on a scheme as large as this.
3. Cardholder Not Present (CNP) fraud will not be affected.
CNP fraud is currently less than half of ID fraud. Face to face fraud is a bigger problem. With ID cards, face to face fraud will become much harder. This will mean fraudsters will target CNP transactions a lot more. Consumers could then be given the option of opting out of CNP transactions. A fraudster already avoids CNP because of the added risks of having to provide a collect address. A fraudster would not know under the new system whether a card was opted out. This would mean they would be taking a greater risk of raising suspicion about a collect address and could be caught before they collected the goods. This will mean there will be an added deterrent to CNP fraud as well as to face to face fraud.
Terrorism and illegal immigration
1. It will do nothing to stop terrorism.
Of those caught, 33% of terrorists had made use of false identities. By making it more difficult to have a false passport and ID card, this must have an impact.
2. It will do nothing to stop illegal immigration.
By making it harder to have false ID and to get work without ID, this will act as a deterrent for illegal immigrants to stay here and make it more difficult for them to make multiple attempts to enter the country once they have been refused residence.
Governments and other authority
1. Why should we trust governments with more power? They will only abuse it.
This is actually an argument against governments altogether. Governments already have enormous powers to invade our privacy and control our lives. Generally they use this power in a positive way. Think of the welfare state and the NHS and the education system, think of the Inland revenue. Think of how the inland revenue will refund overpayments when it realises its error. Generally the welfare state is quite fair about dishing out benefits, and the NHS treats all. Even the more contentious issues like CCTV and congestion charging have proven to be generally beneficial despite concerns over privacy. Unless an opponent is an anarchist and wants to see government abolished, and I don't think 'most' of them do want this, then this is not a legitimate argument against ID cards.
So to sum up, what does this leave us with. To me, the sum total of opponents objections seems very weak indeed.
1. 'If' the technology cannot be improved in time, iris biometrics 'might' have to be dropped from the scheme.
2. A few people (a few hundred?) 'might' have their anonimity put at risk, 'if' the security of the NIR can be breached and alternative arrangements aren't made. Think of any policy, there are winners and losers. For example, cars are considered a greater benefit to society than the 3000+ road deaths every year. Even if opponents are right about this, and they have produced no specific evidence to suggest they are, all policies have negative aspects and this seems to affect relative few people. The benefits of the ID scheme seem greater.
3. If the government's cost estimates are massively out (by around a factor of seven), the ID fraud figures are not underestimated and ID cards only solve a very small percentage of fraud then the scheme 'might' be a financial loss. This however seems a very unlikely scenario.
And that as far as I can see are the major objections. Not very much is it?