Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Losing Identity?

So, has he or hasn't he? The snap assessment from most news outlets is that Alan Johnson has indeed signalled a major policy U-turn from the government's "flagship" ID card scheme. "The end of ID cards?" asks the Mail. "Climbdown on ID cards" says the BBC news website. But others aren't so sure. As the Guardian points out, while the most controversial part of the scheme's rollout - forcing workers in selected airports to register for the cards this autumn, Johnson "intends to accelerate other elements of the scheme, including plans to issue £30 voluntary ID cards to young adults across north-west England."

There are two ways in interpret Alan Johnson's announcement. Either it marks another stage in the slow retreat of the Home Office from their plans to introduce quasi-compulsory identity registration, or it is basically a PR move designed to make the cards seem less objectionable without sacrificing the central goal of having the population hooked up to the database as quickly as can be managed. At this stage, it's difficult to tell, partly because, government being government, they would attempt to disguise a U-turn even if they were embarking on one, and partly because the announcement was made in such vague terms.

The ID card scheme has always had two elements - the ID database, and the card. The card scarcely matters. It does no more than a passport does in identifying the person holding it. Given that the government still wants to introduce biometric information to passports, the process of building up the National Identity Register is scarcely affected by today's announcement.

The problem isn't not the card, it's the database. Will applying for or renewing a passport entail registering for life with the ID database, which you will be compelled to keep informed of your address and any change in circumstances, on pain of a £1000 fine, whether or not you choose to renew the passport? If so, says Liberty's Isabella Sankey, the scheme "will be compulsory in practice. However you spin it, big ears, four legs and a long trunk still make an elephant."

Indeed, the generally promising new Home Secretary was at pains to insist on his personal attachment to the scheme - which might be bluster, of course. The Home Office press release accompanying today's announcement is headed "Home Secretary affirms commitment to identity cards". The impression given - Soviet style - is that the rollout is all going according to plan - indeed, better than expected. No suggestion of any rowing-back or loss of enthusiasm. Quite the reverse, in fact.

"The rollout of identity cards will be accelerated under new proposals set out today by Home Secretary Alan Johnson," it begins, "highlighting the benefits of identity cards to those who need them most."

In addition to Greater Manchester - vaunted earlier this year as a "beacon area" for the scheme by the much missed Jacqui Smith - "residents in locations across the northwest will be entitled to apply from early next year". Lucky them. We're then told that there will be a big push to encourage young people to sign up, and a hint that retailers will be asked to insist on seeing them. There's also a bizarre plan to issue the cards free to over-75s. Also: "the appointment of an independent Identity Commissioner will be made shortly." Great. Another unnecessary and overpaid quangocrat.

The Home Office, it would seem, no longer expects the mass of the population to be queuing up for the ID cards. Instead, they will be heavily targeted at young people, who may not need passports (though most will) and who, unlike their elders, have grown up taking for granted constant demands for ID.

What do I conclude from all this? First, the opponents of ID cards would seem to have won the political argument. The prospect of airline pilots boycotting the scheme has put paid to the discriminatory, and legally questionable, idea that people working in aviation should be compelled to place their details on a national register that is not designed with aviation in mind. The scheme has, moreover, become vulnerable in these recessionary times to objections on grounds of cost. Given that the ID register is apparently still going ahead there are still substantial savings to be made from scrapping it; but without the headline-grabbing element of compulsion opposition might be more difficult to sustain. That, at any rate, is what its proponents hope.

There have always been two impulses driving the ID system: the political (based on headline-grabbing claims that the cards will magically solve the problems of terrorism, organised crime, benefit fraud, etc), and the bureaucratic. The bureaucratic drive for ID registration comes from the perennial desire of governments to organise and control the population, a tendency that has always been vulnerable to IT companies proferring technical (and, of course, pricey) solutions. If the political case for ID cards has failed (though they are not, yet, deeply unpopular) the bureaucratic case remains; and the companies that stand to rake in the cash will even now be taking steps to cling on to their contracts and hopes of contracts.

Word is that Alan Johnson personally wanted rid of the scheme entirely, but Gordon Brown wouldn't let him. That's how the Conservatives are spinning it, anyway - althougth Johnson himself claimed that he was the scheme's greatest supporter. Mind you, he's also declared himself to be Gordon Brown's greatest supporter on numerous occasions, and we all know how seriously to treat that assertion. Brown is certainly an enthusiast for the database state in all its guises, from the ID register to the even more dangerous plans for "transformative government". It suits his centralising, statistic-accumulating, micro-managing style. But it's more likely officials in the Home Office who stymied any plans Johnson may have had to kick the scheme into touch. They have waited for too long to get their misanthropic paws on all that data to let it slip away from them now. No doubt they have high hopes on working a similar trick on the incoming Tory government.

For them, it has never been about ID cards anyway. Henry Porter helpfully draws our attention to what he calls a "dubious little paper" called Safeguarding Identity (pdf) published by the Home Office only last week. This, says Porter, "describes how the ID card and the transformational government scheme mesh together in one glorious structure where data about the individual passes between departments. That is the prize and why they will use any argument and spend any amount to achieve it." And indeed, paragraph 3.9 shows that, whatever the substance or subtext of today's announcement, the ideal of national ID registration remains for the moment unchanged:

3.9. It is proposed that, over time, the Identity and Passport Service (IPS) will hold the minimum identity data set. This would make it possible for other Government departments to share this information...

And for that to come to pass, some form of compulsion will eventually be needed.

At present, "the state" doesn't know everything about you: different government departments each know different things that they need to know for different and particular purposes. I'd like it to stay that way. Of course, it makes things less efficient - but then efficiency is and always has been the enemy of freedom. Liberty lives in the gaps where the government can't quite see what's going on.

Although, needless to say, it isn't just about you and the state:

3.32. The vision for the NIS is that it will become an essential part of everyday life; underpinning interactions and transactions between individuals, public services and businesses and supporting people to protect their identity. The NIS will do this primarily through further ‘identity services’: the processes and tools with which people can prove or check identity.

3.34. The experience of other countries suggests that identity services need to be developed gradually, over time, with new functionality being added as the number of people enrolled grows and the appropriate technology develops further. It also shows that access to public sector services often comes first, but in the end it is both public and private sector applications that will drive utility.

Incidentally, there's nothing anywhere in the document that suggests that the plans might be affected by a change of government.

I note that the document contains a foreword by one Alan Johnson. "I fully endorse the actions set out in this strategy and look forward to supporting their delivery." Perhaps he doesn't really mean it.