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 Folly of ID cards

Why we can't trust the government

Sunday May 29, 2005
The Observer

The government's faith in ID cards to solve all manner of social ills continues to grow. They have been sold to us over the last three years as, variously, protection against illegal immigration, benefit fraud and terrorism. Last week, the Prime Minister added identity theft - the hijacking of private data for criminal ends.

The government's contention is that huge savings would be made and national security enhanced if we would only agree to carry microchips that, when checked against a national database, prove our identity.

The surrender of privacy and the cost required by such a scheme might just about be worth the supposed benefits if two conditions are met: we must have confidence in the state to use our data wisely, and we must have faith in the state to make the system work. We have neither.

The current bill contains broadly the same scheme offered to parliament last year. ID cards will not at first be compulsory, nor will it be illegal to leave them at home. The cost of the card (around 100 for every adult, according to the government, substantially more according to estimates reported in The Observer ) will be met by the individual. But if the government expects the cards to form a watertight security seal, it is hard to see how it will not become obligatory to own and carry them much sooner than the proposed 2013 date.

Besides, the government's motives have been obscured by the ad hoc way in which claimed advantages pile up. Our trust in the state to handle our data safely is undermined by this shifting account of the purpose of ID cards. What will happen, for example, when private companies with contracts to run public services want access to the database? Or when foreign governments do so?

Any professional who works with new technology knows that it rarely works as advertised. Only those who have little experience of it - civil servants, cabinet ministers - believe it can perform miracles. A hoard of private data on the scale proposed is not only a bulwark against fraudsters and terrorists, it is also target for them. The government must find more trustworthy ways to protect the people it serves.