Submission to the Home Office

Re-posted from archive of infinite ideas machine 2004: [LINKS UNCHECKED]

What follows is the full text of my e-mail submission to the Home Office consultation on ID cards. The deadline is today so, if you haven’t done so already, please do send something (even if it’s just a simple ‘I am against the proposed scheme and legislation’ type mail) to, making sure the words ‘consultation response’ appear in the Subject line.

UPDATE: if you want to gather some inspiration from others’ thoughts and comments then visit Spy Blog’s excellent annotated blog of the Draft Bill or Mark Simpkins’ equally excellent blog of the entire consultation document. And if you have a little more time, I heartily recommend you download and read’s submission [219KB MS Word document].

Here goes nothing:


I am writing in response to the Home Office’s document ‘Legislation on Identity Cards: a consultation’, published on 26th April 2004, which includes the draft clauses of an Identity Cards Bill.

For the purposes of registering responses as being for or against the proposed legislation and scheme, I am AGAINST – for the reasons I outline below.

I hope that, this time, the Home Office will recognise and publically acknowledge ALL individual electronically-submitted responses, something it failed to do in the previous consultation. For your information, I have designed a large-scale smartcard-based system for children, which was subsequently part-funded by DH, DfES & the Treasury and currently operates across a number of UK Local Authorities.

My first objection is that the name of the Draft Bill itself is disingenuous – as evidenced by the number of clauses and references to the National Identity Register within it. By ‘headlining’ ID cards, and not the NIR that underlies the whole scheme, the Home Office and Home Secretary avoid publicising the very thing that I have personally found most people object to. I have had numerous conversations in past months with members of the public, friends, acquaintances and professionals and the vast majority of them (even those who are initially in favour of ID cards) express doubts or change their opinion when made aware of the large database of personal information, including their fingerprints and iris scan, that will be required to operate the proposed scheme.

My second objection is to the government’s continued misleading assertions about public support for ID cards and, e.g. misuse of the term ‘voluntary’ with regard to the scheme. It is highly unlikely that 80% of the population will apply voluntarily for an ID card – the ‘trigger level’ proposed for making them compulsory – as even the Detica/MORI poll to which the Home Office so frequently refers revealed that 48% of the population do not want to pay for an ID card, even if they think it might be a good idea!

Linking the scheme to passport and driving license renewals and applications – as would seem to be the government’s intention – will mean that entry onto the NIR would be INvoluntary, unless citizens can choose to have their driving license or passport WITHOUT getting an NIR entry or ID card. There does not appear to be any provision for this at present (in fact it seems that this option is specifically being avoided) but, were there to be such provision, entry onto the NIR should at the very least require informed consent – i.e. be on a strictly ‘opt in’ not an ‘opt out’ basis.

Des Browne has stated within the last week that ID cards will become compulsory in 2008, and the Home Office seems determined to follow a schedule that even major suppliers think is unrealistic – while ignoring the fact that public support for ID cards is not as high and unwavering as the government would have us believe.

A recent ICM poll (commissioned by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust for their annual ‘State of the Nation’ report) shows that some 24% of people across the UK oppose biometric ID cards, with only 71% agreeing that they would be a good idea – and support in Scotland seems to have fallen as low as 56%. An earlier YouGov survey put support across the UK as low as 61%! This significant fall-off may explain why, despite the 80% level of support still quoted by the Home Office, it appears that MORI are having difficulties in recruiting sufficient volunteers for the current UKPS biometric enrollment trials. These sorts of difficulties are only going to get worse as the scheme proceeds and public awareness of its impact and implications increases.

Most worrying are the Prime Minister’s and others’ continued assertions that there are no longer any “significant civil liberties objections” when, in point of fact, there are. Simply ignoring those who express them and, e.g. refusing to attend public meetings (such as ‘Mistaken Identity’ at the LSE in May) that might prove difficult to convince or win over, DOES NOT mean that people are willing to forgo their existing rights and freedoms, or those of their fellow – or future – citizens. If the Home Office wish to continue asserting this, they should list precisely which civil liberties objections they have addressed and ‘overcome’.

As I understand it, the government has failed to explain how ID cards and the NIR will avoid or prevent the following:

1) Exclusion – ID cards will disadvantage the most marginal and powerless people in society, creating a form of ‘statelessness’. This would especially be of concern regarding the homeless, the aged and infirm and the mentally ill or incompetent.

2) Discrimination – ID cards will be used as a tool for racial prejudice. Recently published police statistics show a disproportionate growth in the number of Asian people stopped on the street since 9/11, and this dynamic would only be reinforced if ID cards were to become compulsory.

3) Loss of Privacy – ID cards will facilitation more collection and processing of data, and will destroy personal privacy. The definitions of ‘consent’ in the Draft Bill are too loose to prevent the routine sharing of information between agencies that I am not happy have good reason to share my data, and data in the NIR would in any case be too vulnerable to abuse by staff in any number of agencies – let alone the secondary information that may be available from an ‘audit trail’ of my identity transactions.

4) Loss of Sovereignty – ID cards (and other identity initiatives) are being forced on the UK by overseas authorities, specifically the US and EU. We have a proud history of world leadership and independence and yet this government seems willing to surrender some of its citizens’ basic rights and liberties on the say-so of foreign powers.

5) Internal Passport / End to Presumption of Innocence – the ID card will inevitably become an indispensable document, to be demanded indiscriminately by anyone holding any position of authority. I don’t need to carry my passport to walk down the street at present, why should I need to in future? I am innocent until proven guilty, not the other way around!

6) Lifechanging Inconvenience – the loss, failure or theft of an ID card that is demanded for so many important functions of life would effectively suspend the rights and normal functioning of the individual. Government IT systems are notoriously prone to error and instability, but if it is my very identity that is in question then I cannot afford any downtime or system failures. Ever.

7) Future ‘Big Brother’ – while this government, I am sure, genuinely believes that it would never abuse an ID card / NIR system it cannot guarantee that such a system would or could never be put to unintended hostile uses by a future administration. Though extreme, comparisons to Article 48 of the Weimar Republic and Hitler’s extermination of the Jews are pertinent and throw into sharp contrast the current government’s (over)reaction to ‘Islamic’ terrorism. The ‘war on terror’ is NOT World War II, and there is no immediate and overwhelming moral or practical justification for ID cards – if there were, the government would (and should) have brought them in immediately.

Due to the fact that I am not a lawyer or legislator I do not propose to offer a clause by clause response to the Draft Bill, but offer my remaining objections which fall into the following categories:

1) Feature creep & abuse of personal data – since the earliest mention of ‘entitlement cards’ to the current ‘ID cards’ scheme, the Home Office have inconsistently given a number of reasons as to why we should have them. I address these individually below, but wish to make the point that if you cannot even give a clear definition of what ID cards and the NIR are for at the outset it is unlikely that you will be able to correctly specify the system (especially its ‘business rules’) and highly likely that any system that is built will be prone to feature creep.

The scheme has variously been sold on its ‘convenience’ and ‘cost-saving’ properties. Both of these imply broad usage of its data records across government and the public sector, which would means the cards / NIR being hooked into numerous systems – each of which would offer another route of attack or compromise. It appears that feature creep is, far from being avoided, actually being designed into the system.

While strict security measures and sanctions against misuse may be applied, the reality is that centralising such a large amount of data and introducing complex links with a variety of services that employ a large number of people will almost inevitably lead to abuse – not only by those administering the system, but by anyone with access to it.

In combination with the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, the NIR will also open up new possibilities for widespread surveillance, profiling and other invasions of privacy – albeit by a limited number of people. The technological pursuit of efficient delivery of services should not be used to undermine the quite necessary and proper safeguards afforded by our currently decentralised systems. Mere efficiency should be balanced against potential abuses of private information, the erosion of personal privacy and other risks to society.

2) ‘Infallibility’ & biometrics – the Home Secretary would have us believe that biometrics will make for infallible identification, and that ID cards themselves will be unforgeable. This is dangerous nonsense and if anyone at, or appointed by, the Home Office genuinely believes it then they should be dismissed immediately – because they are obviously incapable of commissioning, let alone designing or implementing, a secure system! If the government is serious about, e.g. reducing identity fraud than it needs to be a lot more accurate in ALL of its public statements on identification technologies!

Some of the more well-informed and technologically-savvy individuals in the country, as well as a number of internationally-renowned independent experts, have serious misgivings about the maturity and practicality of biometric systems. Of course representatives of those companies that stand to make a profit from a biometric-based scheme will be telling government that everything can be worked out. I only hope that the Home Office will pay close attention to the dismal performance of the technologies, e.g. in its current (UKPS) trials and realise how badly they are being deceived by the suppliers. That is, of course, assuming that they are not already deluding themselves…

N.B. this is an area in which I have specifically relevant expertise. Whilst the kids I was working with [see para 3 above] at first sight thought that fingerprint technologies were ‘cool’, they soon became adamantly opposed to them (or any biometric) when they realised that their fingerprint data would be stored permanently on a database somewhere. The same is likely to be true for many members of the general public, who associate fingerprinting with criminality.

3) Supposed benefits – a number of ‘reasons’ have been given for the introduction of ID cards and the NIR, but little or no evidence has been provided to support or justify these. In fact, when challenged, the Home Secretary has been forced to modify or correct his statements (including those made in Parliament) regarding the use and effectiveness of ID cards.

So many reasons have been given that ID cards have begun to look like this government’s answer to a whole range of problems to which there seem to be no easy answers. Being seen to be doing something may be politically expedient, but will not solve:

a) Terrorism – fighting terrorism requires sound intelligence and competent policing and, even if the NIR is to be used for wholesale surveillance and profiling and indiscriminate data-sharing across international borders, ID cards themselves (as the Home Secretary himself admits!) do not offer a solution.

The suicide bombers who carried out the 9/11 atrocities all had perfectly valid identification papers or compelling forgeries. Spanish ID cards did nothing to prevent or deter the train bombings in Madrid. In fact, of the 25 countries worst affected by terrorism since 1986, 80% have national identity cards – one third of which incorporate biometrics. Detailed research by, e.g. Privacy International, was unable to uncover a single instance where the presence of an ID card system was seen as a significant deterrent to terrorist activity.

b) Illegal immigration & working – as people will still be able to enter the country on a 3 month tourist visa, and what is proposed is a scheme for UK residents, there is no way in which ID cards can tackle immigration issues ‘at source’. There are in any case already systems in place to deal with illegal immigration and black market illegal labour, but the authorities have shown themselves incapable of administering them.

Employers of illegal immigrants are often fully aware that they are breaking the law – but they don’t ask to see National Insurance cards at present, and they won’t check people’s ID cards in future. ID cards will mean even more red tape and expense for legitimate businesses, but will be completely ignored by those who are already willing to act outside the law.

c) Health Tourism and other benefit fraud – there are already a range of systems in place (NHS numbers, National Insurance cards, etc.) that attempt to combat fraud and ensure people only get the services that they are entitled to. Some of these systems may require reform or improvement, but that is no reason to spend billions on a national ID card scheme.

The vast majority of benefit fraud comes about through understatement of income, circumstances and/or capital, none of which have anything to do with identity. In fact, when Michael Howard suggested the introduction of an ID card scheme in 1995, the DSS argued against it precisely because it would not have a noticeable effect on benefit fraud in the UK. More recently in 2003, Richard Kitchen of DWP stated that only 15% of the roughly £2 billion lost annually to fraud includes an initial motive to defraud – and of this, only a small amount involves deception of identity.

There could conceivably be serious and potentially life-threatening administrative problems for those who lose their ID card or have it stolen. And, e.g. the BMA doesn’t want our already overstretched GPs and NHS doctors to have to become ‘unofficial immigration inspectors’, or to be put in a position where they must decide who receives care and who doesn’t.

d) Identity theft – the government has singularly failed to maintain the integrity of any large-scale (identity) database, cf. National Insurance numbers, Driving Licenses and Passports. The creation of a new identity document will provide a high value target for fraudsters and history shows that the higher the potential gains from forgeries, the more resources that potential fraudsters will invest in circumventing the security provided by a system.

Far from reducing identity theft, ID cards are therefore more likely to encourage it! The more information and services that the Home Office tie into the NIR and ID cards, the more attractive they become as a target.

A more appropriate approach to tackling this issue would be a campaign of public education and better tracking of known stolen documents and cases of identity fraud. Tightening controls on the banks and credit reference agencies would also be more likely to have a positive effect than the creation of yet another card for citizens to carry.

4) Cost and value for money – the Home Office has failed to publish even a rough outline of the workings by which it arrived at a figure of £3.1 billion for the cost of the scheme. These costs have already doubled from the last time a figure was quoted, and others have come up with plausible calculations that show the figure to be closer to £6 billion – and which also note significant additional costs to business and public sector agencies when they are required to use ID cards to verify people’s ‘entitlement’ to services.

Government IT projects are notorious for both time and budget overruns, and according to the Detica/MORI survey around 60% of people don’t trust them to implement a scheme properly in any case! Looking at the government’s track record, and that of the suppliers that they appoint, it isn’t hard to see why…

As a citizen, I stand to gain very little in return for my £35-70 ID card not to mention the £60-120 per person that seems likely to come from my taxes. What I will get is a lot of inconvenience when my family and I have to attend a registration centre to ‘prove our existence’, nagging doubts once my and my loved ones’ biometrics and other details are on a system that I know cannot be perfect, and a lifetime in a society based increasingly on fear and mistrust.

Not a price that I and many others will be willing to pay for a bunch of spurious ‘benefits’.


In summary then, I don’t believe the government is engaging in proper and open debate on an issue that is fundamental to its citizens’ rights and freedoms; I have no confidence that it – or any future government – will be able to implement a system that is not open to widespread abuse and (for some individuals) critical failure; I am certain that any system which the government tries to build will cost a great deal more than is currently being forecast, and that the money used would be much better spent tackling the stated problems in other ways.

The Home Office’s ‘softly, softly’ approach to bringing ID cards into force and the National Identity Register ‘by the back door’ speaks volumes as to their true intentions – and to the perfectly accurate assessment that if they attempted to bring them in all at once, they would face massive resistance from a public that at present remains largely ignorant of the full implications of the scheme.

Hoping that someone does at least read down this far and that, despite my firm opposition to the scheme, my comments will be taken seriously.

Yours faithfully,

Phil Booth”

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