Identity Cards in Britain

By Deane, Alex | Contemporary Review, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Identity Cards in Britain


Deane, Alex, Contemporary Review


IN the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, politicians in countries around the world dug up old proposals for the introduction of Identity Cards. They have a long history in continental countries, but have rarely been used in English-speaking ones.

Previously, popular opinion in countries like Britain and Australia had never accepted that such a scheme was necessary for public safety. Those in favour often had to resort to promoting the supposed subsidiary benefits of the card--health records, financial details and so on--to sell it (some in the current situation still tout these fringe issues despite the fact that having a 'solution' and then seeking out problems for it to solve is generally a bad idea). Despite the hard sell, in the past Britons and Australians generally felt that in the balance between state power and individual liberty, this was a step too far on the state's side.

The 'War on Terror' has produced many strange political situations. In Britain, a left-wing government tried to enact this authoritarian measure but they were unable to get it through the House of Lords before Parliament was dissolved for the general election. In Australia, a right-wing government opposed a similar measure. In my opinion, John Howard's Australian Government is right, and the Blair Government is wrong. This enormous curtailment of liberty is being opposed by the Conservative Party under Michael Howard as well as the Liberal Democrats at the forthcoming general election. It is but one of a range of attacks on age-old rights being proposed by Britain's profoundly illiberal Labour Government.

There are three broad grounds for opposition to the introduction of ID cards, and a further, overarching, principle. The three grounds are utility, administrative issues and cost.

Some of the 9/11 terrorists had genuine ID cards and passports: they were travelling under their own identities. (In the US resident aliens have a 'green card' giving their details.) How would an ID card stop terrorists? Spain has had ID cards for ten years--that didn't stop the Madrid bombing in 2004.

Besides, people will be able to make false ID cards, just as they have made false passports and driving licences? The technology gap between government and organised crime is all but non-existent. Within weeks of introduction, blank or doctored versions of supposedly highly secure cards are available to criminals, which have been counterfeited or stolen from individuals or from the source of production.

In an environment in which possession of an apparently legitimate single card ID yields a false sense of security, criminals and terrorists can then move more freely and more safely with several fake identities than they ever could in a country with multiple forms of ID. Thus those that we wish the scheme to affect will not be significantly impeded--but law-abiding people will be enormously inconvenienced. What difference will the scheme actually make to policing, given that people won't be compelled to carry the card on their person?

While participation in the scheme will be compulsory, there is an exception in the UK's proposed scheme: people in the country for less than three months are not required to have one. This is logical, given the enormous and absurd bureaucracy that would choke up tourist, short-stay and in-transit visits to the country. But it means those most likely to pose a threat--those from outside--are precisely the people it explicitly exempts.

The UK police fingerprint database has 500,000 people on it. It is enormously expensive to run, and is highly complex. Only a few police stations have direct access to it, because it's so costly and sophisticated (smaller stations have to refer queries to stations large enough to have the system). Under the strain of the information it contains and the constant use by different stations, and perhaps because of mismanagement, the fingerprint database crashed in the first week of December 2004. …

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