Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Mistaken Identity

Is Gordon Brown backing away from his much-vaunted scheme for ID cards? Following the catastrophic losses of data last year (child benefit claims, learner drivers, and more), the opposition of much of the "right-wing" press (though not, yet, the Sun), the Conservatives and Lib Dems, and possibly now even the Guardian, the spiralling costs, and the falling off of support in the opinion polls as more people notice what the scheme actually entails, you might think it would be in his interests to do so. After all, he might be able to (falsely) claim, it isn't even his fault. It's part of Tony's "legacy", after all. Just as the Poll Tax could be safely ditched once Maggie was out of the way.

Certainly there have been hints in recent days that the government might be going cool on the idea. And today, in Prime Minister's Questions, David Cameron pressed Brown hard on the issue, to the PM's evident discomfort. He conceded that there would have to be a parliamentary vote before the scheme becomes compulsory, something that has always been the case, and made it seem ever-so-slightly more than a mere formality.

"It is the Government's intention to press ahead with this." was the most he could bring himself to say. Which, according to David Hughes of the Telegraph, meant that


The Prime Minister is evidently edging away from a commitment to make them compulsory for all citizens. This will now be dependent, he said, on a vote in the House of Commons on the effectiveness of the voluntary scheme. Plenty of wiggle room there.


Before you get too excited, though, it's worth bearing in mind just how central the whole notion of the ID database, the NHS "spine", the childrens' register "ContactPoint" and other accumulations of information are to the government's whole approach to its role and to the "rights and responsibilities" of the citizen. Take health. Much has been made in recent days of the need for a "personalised service" tailored to the needs of every individual. What this means, in practice, is that details of every individual's detailed medical history will be uploaded onto a huge database (with what potentiality for fraud it is easy to imagine) and that healthcare will be "targetted" according to what is found there. The tradition of visiting the doctor when you're ill, moreover, is to be supplanted by a quasi-compulsory regime of tests, "personalised health plans", lifestyle advice and divers other interventions, all sanctioned by the state, all recorded, all on a database. Not the same as the ID database, it's true. Not yet, anyway.

Of course, it's easy to make this seem so benign, so helpful, so progressive. Gordon Brown, in his much-trumpeted speech on "liberty" last October, waxed lyrical about what its proponents like to call "transformational government":

At the same time, a great prize of the information age is that by sharing information across the public sector - responsibly, transparently but also swiftly - we can now deliver personalised services for millions of people, something not dreamt of in 1945 and not possible even ten years ago.

So for a pensioner, for example, this might mean dealing with issues about their pension, meals on wheels and a handrail at home together in one phone call or visit, even though the data about those services is held by different bits of the public and voluntary sectors.


If the system is working, of course. Otherwise our pensioner is left whistling in the dark.

The physical piece of plastic known as an "ID card", whether voluntary or compulsory, is at most intended to be a convenient point of entry to this network of databases, which under the principles of "data sharing" will be accessible, in principle, by hundreds of thousands of civil servants, doctors, teachers, police, and other public employees. And possibly private employees as well. Indeed, if the scheme works as the government would like, whether it is formally voluntary or compulsory will mean little or nothing. It will be impossible to get a job, buy a car or a house (perhaps even a TV), claim a pension, visit your doctor or pharmacist, vote, get credit, open a bank account, go abroad, in short carry out many of the normal functions of life without presenting your ID card or database-linked passport to an official or private employee sitting in front of a computer terminal. And if "computer says no" for whatever reason: data loss, cock up, system crash or fraud, your life will be effectively put on hold.

It is up to you to prove who you are. You will have a legal responsibility to ensure the data is up-to-date (£1000 fine for not informing the authorities of a change of address), but no legal right to correct information you find to be inaccurate.

Systems fail. They fall victim to fraud, human error, and the vagaries of technology. The bigger the system, the greater the inevitability of failure. Of course, any failure will only affect a minority of innocent people. But that could be anyone. You or me.

This is the politics of nightmare. But there's a lot already invested in it. Political capital, money already spent, IT contracts awarded. For the scheme to be derailed it would take more than the well-publicised but relatively trivial data losses so far reported. The best, perhaps the only, hope still lies in the election of a Conservative government. In the meantime, there's always NO2ID, the underfunded, under-reported but often on-the-ball campaign group.

The sooner this scheme crashes the better. It's not just illiberal and intrusive, it's ruinously expensive and ultimately unworkable, a train wreck in slow motion. But governments hate admitting mistakes, and when it comes to patching a leaking dam they have a limitless supply of taxpayer-funded cement. Stopping this will not be easy.