Monday, January 16, 2006

Who owns your identity?

Yet again the House of Lords have called into question the wisdom of supporting the Elect the Lords campaign. The rate at which Blair is currently shipping his cronies into the other place however, makes reform even more necessary in my view. (Obviously a very different voting system would need to be put in place but that's for another time.)

Today, though, the Lords have their sights set on the ID Card and National Identity Register bill. Let's hope they give in the kicking it deserves.

Last week, I received a reply to my letter to Andy "I don't hear too many people questioning the principle of whether we should have an ID card scheme" Burnham. The central question was this:
I believe that my personal information, my fingerprints, iris patterns, the shape of my head and so forth are my own private property. I am not a criminal and cannot see any reason why the government should be able to demand that I supply this information for storage in a national identity database. It seems to me that this would fundamentally change the relationship between the government and the people they represent. Leaving aside the many questions as to the potential problems with the proposed scheme, I cannot see how the government has provided any argument which overcomes this objection. I would be most interested to know whether such an argument exists.
I'll be updating this post with my thoughts on whether the reply has answered this question shortly. Bet you can't guess which way I'll go...

Update
The reply is from a member of the Identity Cards Programme Team at the Home Office and a scan can be found here. I've really tried to be as objective as possible in this assessment. It seems that there are two possible ways to counter my objection to the scheme. You could demonstrate that the benefits of the scheme outweigh the costs to civil liberties or you could dispute that the scheme impacts on these civil liberties.

Benefits
In practice, it is sometimes necessary to trade liberty for some other benefit. We are all happy to be searched before boarding an aircraft because we know it reduces the risk that we'll be blown up or hijacked. It is an infringment of our privacy, we've done nothing to warrant such a search, but the benefits outweigh the costs. Perfectly sensible.

So what benefits does the National Identity Register (NIC) offer? Well, I've read the letter through a number of times and the author provides only one.
The Government's proposals are designed to safeguard, not erode, civil liberties by protecting people's true identity against fraud and by enabling them to prove their identity more easily when accessing public or private services.
Leave aside the denial for now and consider that this is the only sentence in the letter which puts forward a possible benefit provided by the register. The many other claims which have been bandied about by the government, stopping terrorism, illegal immigration control and so on, have all been abandoned after they were shown to be easily disproved. What about this one?

The Guardina article Nosemonkey linked to points out that "[a]s to slashing welfare state misuse, the works and pensions minister Chris Pond accepted that more than 90% of it involves lying about circumstances rather than identity". So identity fraud isn't a major problem when it comes to abuses of the welfare system, ie "when accessing public services". I personally have no difficult proving my identity to those private services I chose to use so a benefit which makes this "easier" doesn't really impact me. Perhaps most people in the UK do find this difficult?

It seems to me that the benefits of this scheme, if they exist at all, are extremely limited in scope. It is very hard to see how the benefit offered by the Home Office would outweigh the cost in terms of civil liberties.

Denials
The second option is to dispute that the proposals have a negative impact on civil liberties. As can be seen from the one sentence which did offer a possible benefit, this is now the main thrust of the government's defence of the scheme. To many people, this tactic is all the proof they need to demonstrate just how unjustified the scheme is. It is, to many, patently absurd to suggest that the government could keep detailed records about every person in the country without a negative effect on civil liberties. I'm trying to be objective so I'll try to understand the claim. Feel free to scroll down though. This is, in many ways, a pointless exercise.

Denial number 1:
I assure you that the information that may be held in the Identity Cards Scheme is strictly limited by the Identity Cards Bill. This is listed in Schedule 1 of the Bill and included personal information such as name, address, date and place of birth.
I assume the author doesn't think I'll have checked what Schedule 1 actually says and that I will somehow be reassured that they won't be storing the details mentioned in my letter.
Schedule 1 - Information that may be recorded in the register
Section 2 - Identifying information
The following may be recorded in an individual’s entry in the Register—
(a) a photograph of his head and shoulders;
(b) his signature;
(c) his fingerprints;
(d) other biometric information about him.
Strictly limited by means of the restrictive, tightly defined "other biometric information"? These are the very people who want us to trust them. Er, no. If you're prepared to use such disingenuous methods to "debate" the issue, I'm afraid I wouldn't trust you to get pissed in barrel of whisky. An attempt to reassure me based on an implicit denial that "my fingerprints, iris patterns, the shape of my head" will be included in the register doesn't inspire me with any great confidence. Fingerprints will be. Iris patterns probably will be too. Ignoring that reality isn't very useful in trying to address my point.

And what of Section 4 (l) which allows the register to include "the number of any designated document which is held by him and is a document the number of which does not fall within any of the preceding sub-paragraphs"? That sound just so very strictly limited.

So far, one misleading and utterly meaningless denial. The government are going to take possession of my fingerprints and other identifying features.

Denial number 2
This strict control can be contrasted with the vast amount of data that the public is happy to give voluntarily to private sector organisations such as mobile phone operators, credit reference agencies, and supermarkets. For example, according to surveys, as at 27 August last year, 60% of UK consumers - 26.8m people - held 'loyalty cards'.
The letter goes on to outline just what sorts of information we give to these private sector companies. It's a strawman so weak, I can barely be bothered... *Takes deep breath* I don't have any loyalty cards. I chose not to use them because I don't want my details on their poxy databases. Can I do the same for the ID card? There's no denial in the letter of my assertion that the government will "be able to demand" these details from me. Sainsbury's can't fine me up to £2,500 if their chief executive decides that I should apply for their card and I continue to refuse to do so. And I though Blair understood that there are significant differences between the public and private sectors?

What we have in denial 2 is an argument as to why the government thinks it can get away with implementing this scheme. It says nothing about it's effect on civil liberties. "They do it (sort of, if you volunteer your info) so we should be allowed to do it too"? The rallying cry of three year olds all over the country.

Denial number 3
This information [the info voluntarily supplied to the private sector] goes far beyond anything that the National Identity Register would be allowed by law to hold.

The Government's proposals are designed to safeguard, not erode, civil liberties by protecting people's true identity against fraud and by enabling them to prove their identity more easily when accessing public or private services.
It's the one with the "benefit" in it. I'm lost. The implication appears to be that the private sector will stop asking for this information once the bill comes into force. That is, as far as I can see, the only way that the bill could come close to being able to "safeguard" our civil liberties. Unless I've missed something, no-one is suggesting that this'll happen. Safeguard civil liberties by building an enormous extra government database on top of all those which already exist?

It occurs to me, not for the first time, that the Blair government probably don't understand the concept of civil liberty. They might find it useful to consult the very the first sentence of Wikipedia on the subject:
Civil liberties are protections from the power of governments.
Unless it's government who are busy stealing people's identities then I'm afraid they're hopelessly confused when they claim that the NIR will "safeguard" civil liberties. Blair doesn't seem to understand that power can be abused and that the government, as the ultimate power in the country, has more power to abuse than any other body. He is, in short, in denial.

That's it. That's the reply. (There's also a paragragh on the quantities of letters received by the Home Office concerning the scheme, I asked, but I'll leave that for another post as this one is already far too long.) Does it address my "principled objection" to the NIR? My best attempt at an objective analysis leads me to conclude that it does not.

My instinctive reaction is to yet again question Blair's ability to understand the most basic concepts. Is he, in fact, intellectually challenged?

As a postscript, treating people like idiots doesn't really do much to foster respect. It does very little to encourage participation in the political process either. A cynic would suggest that that is the point, it'd be a good way to silence dissent after all. That possibility is all the motivation I need to keep on trying to hassle the manipulative, disingenuous, downright idiotic toerags.

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