Let’s cut to the chase

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

Philip Chaston’s, It’s the Database, Stupid! on both White Rose and Samizdata.net raises some good points about what a couple of the speakers said, most notably:

Both were unable to provide a convincing story as to why the government was introducing this measure. Without understanding the motives behind the development of the ID scheme, it will prove far more difficult to halt or reverse.

Uncovering the government’s (not so) hidden agendas is one line of attack – and, as Philip acknowledges, there is no one simple answer. New Labour are very definitely fans of ‘centralising control through data’ – but I am certain that all governments fall prey to this, to some degree. It’s the nature of any bureacracy to perpetuate itself, and managing everyone’s identity is pretty much the mother of all bureaucratic moves. So much so that it takes a large step towards authoritarianism, even totalitarianism…

I don’t believe that there is some highly organised plot in the UK (or globally) by a sinister ‘them’ who wish to control every aspect of our lives. Rather I think that opportunist politicians, heavily influenced by companies who stand to make enormous profits and civil servants who sniff a gravy train in the making, are being fooled into thinking that technological ‘quick fixes’ can dig them out of problems that are either of their own making (through poor management or bad decision-making) or so complex that no single initiaive can hope to have any effect.

Those in power are rarely smart enough to understand the full implications of what they are doing, and even if they are they know that (a) they are nowadays unlikely ever to be held accountable for their actions, so long as they are fairly near the top of the Westminster pile, and (b) it’s probably worth doing anyway as a step towards making their name, gaining position or garnering a lucrative Directorship or two when they leave office – the public/media memory for all but the biggest cock-ups being so short.

Of course, individuals such as Blunkett and Blair are driven by a more messianic sense of self-belief than most and are therefore doubly dangerous. But they are not actually evil, and I’m sure that they genuinely believe that they are doing things for the best. They’re deluded and wrong, and lots of us know it – which is why we have to do something about it.

What might be the possible motives / agendas behind the current ID scheme, then? Here’s a list, in no particular order:

1) Stephen Harrison, Katherine Courtney, et al. at the Home Office see a chance to head up a multibillion pound department of 1,000s (if not 10,000s!) in a job that will make them for life – and probably come with a gong or two if they don’t spectacularly screw the pooch in the meanwhile.

2) David Blunkett ‘sees’ an opportunity to be seen to be tackling a whole bunch of issues. His Christian Stalinist (paternalistic / authoritarian) principles mean that he’s entirely comfortable with trampling over the rights of the (good) many in pursuit of the (bad) few. The problem is that he can’t actually show how what he’s doing is actually going to help, and can’t make a strong and consistent case for ID cards without keeping secrets – the figleaf of ‘commercial confidentiality’ – or making wild assertions, retracting them, then alluding to them again – e.g. on terrorism. ID cards, then, as political panacea.

3) Who in government gets to control citizen IDs? Maybe the various schemes currently in development – the Children’s Bill, ONS’s Citizen Information Project, etc. – reveal some sort of intragovernmental struggle for supremacy. Whichever department ends up running the database will effectively ‘own’ the population: HO vs. IR/Customs vs. DH vs. ??? Even the new e-Envoy Chief Information Officer, Ian Watmore, is saying that the government’s plans look nothing like ‘joined-up thinking’!

4) New Labour are, by now, incapable of making an objective decision about any technology-based scheme – having been lobbied so hard by suppliers and the mega-consultancies, who stand to make enormous profits from any scheme that goes ahead. The tech companies are falling over themselves to land this one, which may explain why Mr Blunkett’s costings are so commercially sensitive – they don’t want anyone knowing how deeply discounted (and therefore unrealistic) some of the costs actually are. You would think that by now someone in government would be smelling a rat, with all the overruns and overspends on IT projects. Wake up! These companies may quote you a low price, but we all know it’s going to cost several to many times more by the time the job’s ‘done’.

[This one’s been sitting in Draft for too long, but it seemed worth publishing as is. Please add any other motives or agendas that you think may be involved…]

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