Mistaken Identity, missing politicians

Re-posted from archive of infinite ideas machine 2004:

Well, that was interesting.

Yesterday’s Mistaken Identity public meeting at the LSE was notable in many respects, but one of the most glaring was the complete absence of any representative from the Government – despite repeated invitations to the Home Office and requests for even ‘just’ a back-bencher to attend!

[N.B. David Winnick (Labour MP) was there, but in his capacity as a member of the Home Affairs Committee – he’s an obvious ID cards sceptic but had to, not least because of his current role, demonstrate a degree of impartiality.]

The only inferences that can be made are that either the Government simply do not wish to engage in a full and proper debate – something they could possibly have spun later, if only they had sent someone to ‘take the flak’ yesterday – or that they know that they have “no singular, convincing argument” (David Cameron, Shadow Leader of the Commons) so cannot risk attending a public event where this is likely to be required by an informed audience.

Given the far-reaching implications of the proposed legislation, and to paraphrase Paul Whitehouse (former Chief Constable, Sussex Police) “the onus is on those who advocate it to prove – by evidence, not assertion – that it will be a good thing”. One of the key impressions I got from the afternoon was people’s frustration at how the Government keep shifting the goalposts and changing their arguments, something that makes challenging the proposals very difficult.

In security technologies and privacy legislation the devil is absolutely in the detail. Without a specific proposal, or even a clear functional specification, the Government should simply not be allowed to proceed.

Also, as Roger Smith (Director, JUSTICE) pointed out, many – if not most – of the MPs and Ministers who vote on this Bill will not be in power by the time it is fully implemented in 2012/13. This means that they cannot actually be held accountable for “changing the relation between citizen and state from servant to master” (David Cameron again, lightly paraphrased). In order to provide the appearance of being tough on crime, immigration and terrorism in time for the next General Election Blair, Blunkett et al. are willing to throw away rights that we have had for centuries and cost us (yes, us – its our money!) billions on measures that will (provably!) have little, if any, impact on the problems they are supposed to address.

There were many excellent speakers and other highlights of the afternoon, for me, included:

Simon Thomas, Plaid Cymru, pointing out the bleeding obvious (i.e. that tackling terrorism is not about identity, it’s about intelligence) and how the Scottish Parliament & Welsh Assembly will not, in any case, comply with ID cards – which, along with Northern & Southern Irish constitutional issues, will make ID cards at best an English scheme. He ended on the telling point that successful Government IT implementations have doubled in the past two years… to 34%!

Interestingly, Simon also said that he had been approached by a number of technology companies when he registered an interest in the ID cards issue – despite his negative stance on it! This, and Mark Oaten’s (Liberal Democrat Home Affairs spokesman) allusion to the fact that one of the Government’s current technology suppliers has just seconded an employee to the Home Office, confirms my concern that at least some of the ‘advice’ that Blunkett and others are taking is tainted. And that ‘corporate tech’ is attempting to muscle the UK into a smartcard future that it simply doesn’t need…

Lord (Andrew) Philips of Sudbury, Liberal Democrat peer, was particularly good – especially in his detailed grasp of the system, e.g. regarding the nonsensical restriction of the powers of the Interception of Communications Commissioner, and his realistic take on the task ahead in persuading the 80-ish% that ID cards backed by a National Identity Register are a BAD IDEA.

He referred specifically to tackling the all-too-common “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear” argument and, although he didn’t explicitly say the phrase, his comment “We’re on no-one’s list now” led me to think that “If you’re not on their list, you won’t exist” might imply/initiate a relevant counter-argument. [Wait for the T-shirt – I’m all for slogans!]

Karen Chouhan (Director, The 1990 Trust), Shami Chakrabarti (Director, Liberty) and Dr Iqbal Sacranie’s representative from the Muslim Council of Britain (Khaled Anees? I’m afraid I didn’t hear his introduction) made me consider how ID cards of any sort are likely to impact on black, Muslim and other ethnic communities. They, and other speakers, made the valid point that ID cards could, in fact, end up provoking terrorism. If I, a white middle-class male, am made angry by the proposals how much more so will be a person who has to endure ID card-related stop and search, or NIR-derived ‘surveillance’? Even top Tories and the former Police Constable were talking in terms of ID cards creating civil disobedience…

Shami Chakrabarti’s speech had the highest concentration of soundbites; “presumed guilty until proved innocent”, “the Home Secretary is looking for a police state without the police”, “license to live” and also made a number of telling points – e.g. that Home Affairs policy and agendas are dangerously populist and could leave us in constitutional ‘poverty’, with untold social costs – never mind the financial. She pointed out that no other Common Law country will even countenance ID cards, and that even George W. Bush has been heard to say since 9/11 that they are counter to American civil liberties. She ended with, “we are too casual with our rights to personal privacy” – a statement with which I wholeheartedly agree.

Tony Bunyan (Editor, Statewatch) spoke knowledgeably on the EU perspective and pointed out something that I think needs to be highlighted in the campaign against – that the impact of ID cards on the individual is most likely to be felt when they have to go to an enrollment centre. Not just for ID cards, of course, but for their Passport – now every 5 years, simply because the company supplying the smartcards will only guarantee the chips for 5 years’ use! Hmmm, someone just doubled their profits – and Driving License – which was supposed to last you until you were 70.

If you are arguing against ID cards, I believe you have to make it personal – make people think how much this is actually going to cost them in money and time, and blow the notion that this is a voluntary scheme out of the water. Having to have an ID card in order to get a Passport or Driving License – there is no provision for otherwise in the Bill – is nothing more than backdoor compulsion. How else does Blunkett propose/expect to get his 80% uptake?

Paul Whitehouse (ex-Sussex Police, see above) made the excellent point that putting technology into the field can disable the police’s ability to act in the moment – if the connection or device fails – and that it tends, over time, to erode the intelligence, observation skills and initiative of individual officers. Passing the ID card test will never – and shouldn’t ever! – mean you are above suspicion, but some may treat it that way and therefore be able to commit atrocities like the Madrid bombing whilst waving their IDs gaily in the face of the authorities, AND BEING WAVED ON.

Peter Williamson (President, The Law Society) spoke eloquently on behalf of the 116,000 solicitors in England and Wales, many of whom oppose the Bill – despite the fact that some of them stand to make a significant amount of money out of litigation when people sue the Gov’t for screwing up their identity. This will happen (it already has in the US with one of the UKPS trial’s technology partners!) and will add massively to the true and ultimate cost of the scheme.

Most of the politicans, including David Davis (Shadow Home Secretary), asked if the £3+ billion could be spent better elsewhere – and were quick to point out that the Home Office figures are only what it will cost the Home Office, not the other authorities and organisations who will at least have to buy scanners & upgrade their infrastructure – or employers & employees who will lose (cumulative) millions of days of work to enrollment, representing £100s of millions+ off the GNP…

Ross Anderson (Cambridge University Computer Laboratory & FIPR) spoke briefly – time was running short – but very much to the point:

“ID cards will inflict great inconvenience on our citizens, without quite inconveniencing the criminals.”

And I have to end with the comment of Jonathan Bamford (Assistant Information Commisioner) that the actual name of the Bill is incorrect: this is not a Draft Identity Cards Bill, it is a ‘Draft ID Cards underpinned by a central register (National Identity Register) and central registry number Bill’. Bit of a mouthful, but more accurate – and less saleable to the British public.

Think, people, think…

Many thanks to Simon Davies (LSE & Privacy International) for assorted ringleading duties – and all the rest who hosted, supported and attended the event. Now, let’s get down to business!

[N.B. I’ve added the no2id campaign site to my links, go have a look.]

UPDATED 21/5/04: If you want some proper journalists’ takes on the meeting, try the BBC or Silicon.com. Also, Peter Williamson’s (President of The Law Society) address [29 KB PDF file] is now available on the Privacy International site, and is well worth a read.

UPDATED 24/5/04: For those who couldn’t make the event, Stand’s page on the Mistaken Identity meeting now contains audio files of all the speakers in MP3 and Ogg Vorbis formats.

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