Trust, trade or anonymity?

Re-posted from archive of infinite ideas machine 2004:

[After a coupla days off – hooray for Bank Holidays!]

Someone who White Rose now tell me wishes to remain anonymous (!) proposes a UK anonymity card:

“A more palatable alternative might be the UK anonymity card. Perhaps we would be persuaded to submit to a one-off secure registration process if the result gave us a card which could read and confirm our thumb print, but held no other personal information. It would just need a royal crest and text to the effect that the bearer is entitled to the service in question. It would prove you are the necessary age, or that you have a clean driving licence, but no more. The authentication is local and off-line, so it does not tell a central database who and where you are, and what you are doing. If you try to use it fraudulently or beyond the authorised limits, you are still nicked.”

Meanwhile, Sarah Arnott in Computing thinks that ‘ID cards for the right reason‘ mean:

“In the real world people can ‘see’ who you are. The same needs to be true in cyberspace and an obvious role for the government is to create that guaranteed online identity.

No longer is it a question of government as ‘Big Brother’ invading our privacy, but of it making the most of its unique position at the centre of society to provide a much-needed service.

ID cards should not be about the negative ‘freedom from’, but the positive ‘freedom to’.

With a government-issued biometric ID card, swiped through a reader as I open my browser, I am free to buy, sell, bank, chat, pay my council tax, apply for a job – whatever it is I want to do – without having to remember a hundred passwords or retype my address a hundred times.”

And Steve Bowbrick’s, ‘Second sight‘, on Guardian Online proposes an altogether different approach:

“I’d like to see Britain invest all the planned ID card budget in simpler, cheaper and more effective measures to increase trust, interdependence and transparency within our communities and institutions. The end result, though doubtless small, will surely be more useful than devoting the next 20 years of our national life to getting flawed ID cards working and preventing the bad guys from stealing the keys.”

Alternatives abound, based on the growing perception that the Government’s proposed ID card / NIR scheme is: (a) likely to be very unpopular – public support for ID cards is falling rapidly, and resistance is growing (see Detica’s MORI poll [188 KB PDF file] 80% pro on 22/4/04 vs. PI’s YouGov poll [45 KB PDF file] 61% pro on 19/5/04); (b) almost bound to be impractical and expensive, if it even works at all (biometrics ain’t all they’re cracked up to be, as past and current problems with the UKPS trials are showing); and (c) misconceived, misdirected* and unlikely to deliver the ‘benefits’ proposed by the Home Office (i.e. countering terrorism, preventing illegal working and reducing identity fraud).

*In fact, the whole exercise increasingly looks like a classic piece of misdirection, e.g. why is the National Information Register not included in the title of the Draft Bill when, in fact, it underpins the entire scheme and is the thing that requires/underlies the majority of the proposed legislation?

There is a clear agenda on the part of the Home Office to create a new ‘clean’ database but is this meant to enable the sort of ‘joined-up’ eGovernment that New Labour have promised, but just can’t seem to deliver? Or is it motivated by the desire to be seen as a technological ‘world leader’, while meekly complying with increasingly invasive EU and US data-sharing ‘requirements’?

Either way – and I’m sure there are other reasons behind this – what we could be left with, if the current proposals become law and the scheme goes ahead, is a surveillance culture in which personal privacy will count for next-to-nothing, and a society in which trust is dictated by little chips in pieces of plastic and Government database records over which we, the people, will have little to no control.

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