by Robert Henderson
The Coalition Government is creating the basis for a national identity system which could evolve into a full blown compulsory identity system including identity cards, although identity cards are not in themselves the main threat to liberty, that being the creation of a database with a great deal of personal information on it. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/news/8526946/Coalition-builds-new-national-identity-system.html.
How is this potential replacement for Labour’s ID Card system being developed? It is ostensibly part of the Coalition’s cost cutting programme. Their ultimate aim is doubtless to restrict access to public services and benefits through websites. In pursuit of this end the Coalition proposes that people wishing to access public services should create a unique personal identifier, with either mutual organisations or private companies such as VISA providing “identity assurance” services. The individual would choose their identity assurance provider. Here is the Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude explaining the Government’s position:
“The UK coalition government plans to introduce the identity assurance model in August 2012. If all goes well, the government plans to come up with a working prototype of the model in October this year.
“Online services have the potential to make life more convenient for service users as well as delivering cost savings. However, currently customers have to enter multiple log-in details and passwords to access different public services, sometimes on the same website,” said Maude, The Register reports.
“It acts as a deterrent to people switching to digital channels, hampers the vision of digital being the primary channel for accessing government information and transactions, and provides an opportunity for fraudster,” he added. Read more: http://www.itproportal.com/2011/05/20/uk-government-plans-id-assurance-marketplace/#ixzz1Nfqa4pWo
A pilot scheme is due to start in October 2011 and will include “the Department for Work and Pensions’ universal credits, NHS HealthSpace and HMRC’s one click programmes.” (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2011/05/19/cabinet_office_id_assurance/)
The scheme has nothing like the ambition of Labour’s ID Card scheme, but it is easy to see how it could grow into a fully fledged identity scheme which would be every bit as intrusive as that proposed by the Labour Government. Personal details will be held on the databases run by the identity assurance suppliers and the universal identifier will allow state departments to readily link the data held on an individual by various government departments and databases. It is also likely that every child will have an identifier from birth because they need to access
services such as the NHS and education.
That would be the immediate authoritarian danger. Move the story along a year or two and we see it being made more and more difficult to gain access to public services without using a website. That will mean a universal identifier becomes ever more necessary. Eventually a future government will announce that as, say, 80% of te people eligible for public services have unique personal identifiers, in a ear or two everyone must have them if they wish to access public services. Once hat is done, not having a unique personal identifier will seem odd at best and suspicious at worst. A government will then make the case that it is essential for everyone to have a unique personal identifier so that terrorism, crime in general and immigration can be tackled. They will then make a unique personal identifier compulsory. At that point we are potentially at the scenario envisaged by the Labour Government; a universal database system contain vast amounts of personal data. All that would be lacking is a physical identity card.
The absence of a physical identity card would not in itself be a great check on an authoritarian government because identification by biometrics such as iris scans or fingerprints could be done by machines – it is not unreasonable to imagine technology advancing enough within the next few years to provide the police with biometric scanners linked to a central database which they can carry with them. But before we get to the stage where the holding of a unique personal identifier is compulsory, identity cards may have been issued because the government thinks (rightly) that a physical object will tie people to the idea more than a system held in cyberspace.
There is also the private and mutual sector dimension. A reliable means of identifying people would be very attractive to private companies and not-for-profit organisations (many of which are effectively sub-contracted state agencies). Once the identity assurance system is up and running, there will doubtless be lobbying for the unique personal identifier is extended to them. The likelihood is that the wish would be eventually granted. This in turn would increase the speed of the take up of the unique personal identifiers as it would become increasing difficult
to exist without one. It is also likely that once possession of a unique personal identifier became the norm, insurers who deal with insuring businesses dealing directly with the public will insist on such companies requiring a unique personal identifier before granting insurance. Alternatively they would up the premium for companies which refuse.
The other risk is that data is lost, stolen or sold illegally. That could have immense personal consequences. The greater the need for a unique personal identifier, the greater the opportunity for amassing information about individuals. Imagine a world in which most or all of these were linked: work record, health record, spending patterns, details of civil law actions, police record (which could simply be an arrest from which no trial or caution resulted) and tax details. Should you have a spouse and children, their records might well end up linked to yours.
The Coalition Government will make promises that none of these things will happen, but we all know how worthless such promises are. Nor can any Government bind its successor because we have no superior constitutional law. All a future government would have to do is introduce new legislation to allow them to do whatever they want.
The time to protest about such possibilities is now, not when the system is up and running. Create the same stink about this as was made about Labour’s ID Card scheme. See it off now because it will never be seen off once the basic system, is in place. A national identity system whether officially compulsory by law or made irresistible by public and private administrative demands becomes a licence to exist in the jurisdiction which insists upon its use.