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National ID cards

August 27, 2003

Cor, this took me long enough to get round to finishing. Anyway, check this out:

http://politics.guardian.co.uk/homeaffairs/story/0,11026,1029974,00.html

Forget the biometric testing bit there and concentrate on the idea of compulsory national ID (or "entitlement") cards. I intend to use this entry to explain exactly why they are a very bad idea, and not just from the civil liberties point of view.

The civil libertarian argument against national ID cards is well established and basically revolves around the fact that if you can be arrested for simply walking around without your papers you're not living in a free country. However, such arguments don't tend to cut much ice with the more diehard proponents of ID card schemes, so I intend to argue against them here in terms of practicality and logistics rather than in terms of ideology and principle.

When you're assessing the worth of wide-ranging measures such as introducing a national ID card, there are two key questions you need to ask:

  • What problem or problems is it supposed to solve?
  • How much will it cost?

What problems are national ID cards supposed to solve?

So far, I have heard the following put forward as benefits of the proposed national ID card scheme:

  • It will reduce crime by providing a sure-fire way for the police to identify citizens
  • It will reduce benefit fraud and confirm entitlement to state benefits and services
  • It will make it easier to catch illegal immigrants
  • It will protect the carrier against identity theft
  • It will help to protect us in the War On Terror (TM)

Let's deal with these one at a time:

National ID cards will reduce crime by providing a sure-fire way for the police to identify citizens

Looking in my wallet now, I am carrying a total of seven cards which carry my signature, three of which also have a photograph of me. I'm sure that the vast majority of UK citizens already carry sufficient documentation to be identified as a matter of course. It's difficult to operate in the modern world without (voluntarily) carrying some form of ID. Why do we need yet another card? We don't.

As for reducing crime, not only is there no evidence that ID cards reduce crime in ay way, but the money that an ID card scheme would cost could pay for much more effective measures to reduce crime, as explained below.

National ID cards will confirm entitlement to state benefits and services

Stop and think about this. Do we really want our entitlement to benefits and medical care to rest on the reliability and efficiency of a large-scale Government IT project? Have you seen the Government's record on such projects? Remember when the new system for passports was introduced and the chaos that caused? That was just passports. Imagine what could happen if a similar failure occurred in the system that governed the nation's entitlement to NHS medical care and other services.

I don't need some card to tell me I'm entitled to use the NHS: I happily pay plenty of tax to fund it and I consider it my right to do so. If I get taken to hospital after an accident and I don't have my ID card on me, will I be given treatment? If not, then hasn't the card's introduction created a barrier against my entitlement to the services for which I pay? If I am treated, then surely the card is irrelevant?

There is a theoretical possibility that a national ID card scheme would make it harder (although not impossible) to commit benefit fraud. However, I can find no concrete evidence of that happening in any of the countries that have introduced ID card schemes. This is because the kind of employer who offers cash in hand work is not likely to be the kind of employer who is stringent about checking ID cards.

National ID cards will make it easier to catch illegal immigrants

It seems that this is a very popular argument amongst pro-card types. I gather that the idea is that if you can arrest people for simply not carrying their ID card, you can then round up and deport any illegal immigrants you happen across. However, there is a thriving black market in forged documentation to which these ID cards would be added. There are documented cases of "cloned" cards being available on the black market within a day of them being introduced. All we'd be doing is creating a money-making opportunity for organised criminals.

National ID cards will protect the carrier against identity theft

The proposed ID smartcards will contain almost all relevant data on you, including tax and medical records, and possibly even financial information. You'd be carrying around a complete identity profile in your wallet. Saying that that protects you against identity theft is like saying that carrying the contents of your current account in your wallet protects you from robbery. If you get your card stolen and cloned then someone could be using your identity the very next day.

National ID cards will help to protect us in the War On Terror (TM)

This statement relies on the fallacious assumption that all Al-Quaeda terrorists that will be operating in the UK will be foreign and hence easily identifiable by their lack of ID cards. However, the UK already has a "sophisticated militant Islamic network" ,one of the reasons given for the fact that the UK is placed 10th on the list of most vulnerable terror targets. We have already seen that UK citizens (for example, Richard Reid, the "shoe bomber") are involved in terrorist activity, and so by concentrating only on those without ID cards we are ignoring a large terrorist threat.

How much will a national ID smartcard scheme cost?

The costs of an ID card scheme can be broken down into three basic areas:

  • The cost of the physical cards themselves
  • The cost of the IT project to set up a database containing in-depth details about everyone in the country
  • The cost of the bureaucracy to administer the database and cards

The only one we can realistically predict is the first one. Every large-scale Governemnt IT project to date (almost all PFI projects, by the way) has come in late, woefully over-budget and often dysfunctional, so it's futile to try and speculate as to what level the setup costs will spiral.

The running of the scheme would require a large government department. I have no idea how much this would cost, but it will be in the billions annually. The Government has suggested that the scheme might cost £3.4 billion a year. The cynic in me says that that means it will cost a hell of a lot more.

However, we can be more concrete about the cost of the cards themselves. The kind of smartcards that the Government has proposed using cost £40 each. The cost of a card for each the sixty million people in the UK would be £2.4 billion. Just for the cards themselves. The salary of a London Metropolitan beat bobby is about £26,000. That means that for the cost of the cards themselves, we could pay the salary of 92,000 extra bobbies for a year!

Which do you think would be more protection against crime and terrorism: carrying a little ID card or having nearly 100,000 extra coppers on the beat?

In short, a compulsory national ID card scheme would cost a packet of taxpayer's money that could be better spent elsewhere, would potentially cause great inconvenience to the British public and would fail to address the problems which it was intended to solve. Even if you set aside concerns over civil liberties they are a bad idea and should be stopped. If they introduce the cards, I'll be down in parliament square burning mine with as many like-minded individuals as I can rustle up.

Count on it.

Posted by Jonah at August 27, 2003 11:10 AM