Today (April 26, 2004), the UK government unveiled plans to introduce a national identity card in the hope to combat terrorism, organized crime, benefit fraud and other illegal activities. While this sounds controversial to many people here in the UK, compulsory ID cards are common features in many places around the world, including many of our European neighbors, who won’t even bat an eye-lid when they hear the term “ID Card”.
Now, let me state my position right from the beginning: I’m for the ID card; I’m comfortable the idea of an ID card and I want to see an ID card system introduced in the UK. I spent many years living in Hong Kong, a former colony of the United Kingdom no less and the ID card is a fact of life. I won’t go out without checking I’ve my ID card with me, not even for a trip that is expected to last less than 5 minutes. From the age of 11, everyone is required to be able to produce some kind of identification material on demand. For the citizens of Hong Kong, the easiest thing is the ID card; for tourist or those who’ve lost their ID cards, it is the passport. The police has the power to issue fines to those who are unable produce identification papers on the spot and even detain those who they suspect are criminals or illegal immigrants. You can’t get a job without an ID card, likewise registering with a doctor or to receive any medical help from hospitals or clinics. You’re pretty much grounded if you don’t have a valid ID card with you - all the time. What wrong with that? Nothing. It is the single most important bit of plastic you need to carry with you. You can lose your wallet, driving license, credit cards, photos of your family, car keys, keys to your property, or just about anything else, you don’t want to lose your ID card. That is the one piece of plastic you want to feel responsible for - it is part of you. What is wrong with being responsible with a part of yourself? Naturally, nothing!
What is it good for?
Now that you’ve the responsibility of carry with you at times an ID card, what is it good for? Well, for first thing that come to mind is that criminals can be immediately identified. Yes, that’s right, there’s nowhere to run and there’s nowhere to hide. If anyone is stopped for whatever reason is unable to produce his/her ID card, it immediately puts the person under suspicion. If someone is truly responsible for his/her action, why can’t they keep a piece credit card-size plastic with him/her? To identify someone on the spot for criminal activities, all the police has to do is call up the database operator and any ‘flags’ will show up immediately. Simple. Does this means a loss of civil liberty? Absolutely not. If you’re not engaging in illegal activities and you’ve nothing to hide, why should carrying a form of identification result in a loss of civil liberty? Similarly, if someone arouses police suspicion and turns out that there is a flag against the individual for suspected terrorist links, the person can be questioned further. In another words, a compulsory national ID card system can make policing ‘smarter’. In actual fact, the introduction of a compulsory national ID card will fundamentally change the way how police in the UK works.
The whole point of an ID card system is that in a relatively quick way, authorities can find out if someone is allowed to be in the UK and, if so, whether that person is hunted by the police. Illegal immigrants will have a significantly higher ‘barrier of entry’ into the UK. For those who’ve successfully applied for entry into the UK, they would be issued such a document and made available to them at the point of entry or soon after.
People can change their addresses as many times as they like in a lifetime. They can have multiple addresses at any one time. They can give false address to avoid detection or commit fraud. However, each person can only have one identity and hence only one ID card. Therefore, for a country that is struggling to contain benefit fraud and is combating health service abuse by non-residents, a compulsory ID card system is the perfect way to eliminate such abuses. The question is not a matter of whether it would work, but how well you want it to work.
All the above benefits are fairly obvious and have all been stated by the proponents of a national ID card system. However I personally believe there is an additional side benefit that has not been mentioned but it can have a tangible effect in this country - anti-social behavior. Within this class behavior, I include hooliganism, public drunkenness, public disturbances, vandalism, etc. You may think that anti-social behavior is the result of alcohol, which to a large extent is probably true. Moreover, it is the belief that unless the offenders really overstep the line, they’re likely to get away with the offense. Additionally, it is entirely that they are repeat offenders by failed to be recognized as such by the police on the spot who simply give them a verbal warning. However, with a compulsory national ID card system, offenders who even have only a single unrelated offense in the past will be identified by the police record database and the chances of ‘getting away with it’ become remote.
Finally, this is an unprecedented opportunity to look at how various government agencies can share and coordinate their data. The police the National Criminal Database, the National Health Service has a list of people on health benefits, the Department of Work and Pension has National Insurance data, the DVLA has driver license data... The list goes on and on and it is has been demonstrated in the past that some of these departments don’t talk to each other and don’t share their data either. With the introduction of a compulsory national ID card which links an individual’s biometrics to his/her various bits of data stored in national databases, it is the next logical step to coordinate or even merge many of these databases together to form a more comprehensive and possible more efficient database that serves many different department at the same time. Again, there is a cost implication on such an exercise, but, again, it can be argued that the cost savings in the long run outweighs the immediate cost of implementation.
What are the pitfalls?
When it comes to projects that involve the population’s personal data, the most obvious point, much vaunted by civil liberty campaigners, is the invasion of privacy and loss of civil liberties. There is an argument that we live in a country at a time where an average individual is captured on up to a dozen different CCTV in any given 24-hour period. That is just by going about our daily lives. That is considered as an invasion of privacy. If being filmed on various security systems is considered a violation of our privacy, then holding a bit of biometrics data can argued as benign. After all, it is only a bit of static data that can be used to identify each of us as individual. However, the question becomes more serious when various government agencies cross-link out various bits of static data to generate a fuller picture of our activities. For some this may result in a loss of civil liberties by over-zealous police and securities services personnel. In a perfect world, I would imagine that different levels of access will be granted to different areas of the government, so that no one single department can gain access to all the data stored in various databases, except under exceptional circumstances like anti-terrorism or criminal investigations. Of course, we live in the real world and it is vital important that the Home Office device a simple and realistic plan and a workable system. This way they can appease those who’re concern about our civil liberties but at the same time maintain a system that is powerful enough so that police and the security services can get real work done should they need to.
Aside from the ‘breach’ of personal civil liberties, which can be argued as real or imagined, security of the data is a ever-present problem. Ever since the creation of private networks, they’ve been under attack by ‘hackers’:
Some of them do it for fun - “Look dad,
see what I picked up today!”
Of course, none of these scenarios are acceptable.
It is the alarming rise credit card fraud that has driven the UK credit card issuers to look to chip-‘n-PIN technology, which is due to roll out in the second half of 2004. (France and other parts of Western Europe have had this system for over 10 years!) Unlike other European countries, the UK has no experience of chip-‘n-PIN technology and hence no comprehension of how secure the data can be. However, there’re lots of detractors, for they fear that access to data stored centrally and ‘cloned’ ID cards will result in ‘identity theft’. While this can be a valid point, you really need three pieces of technologies to facilitate ‘identity theft’: 1) Technology to hack the data system to steal data or to collate data. 2) Technology to make or copy an ID card and 3) technology to capture and store biometrics data to allow the new user to use the card. While this combination appears to be secure, each of these pieces of technology has to be sophisticated enough to create a ‘barrier of entry’ and at the same time, the various systems has to be constantly tested to ensure that security is not compromised.
Some argues that the introduction of an ID card will ‘worsen racism’ as police will target individuals of minority races for ‘stop and search’, a notorious practice that minorities claim the police targets them for racial reasons. Believe it or not, this is a large pile of bull. I’m an ethnic Chinese living the United Kingdom, I’ve never been ‘stopped and searched’. For those who complain about an ID card facilitate additional ‘racial harassment’ by the police, they will always find something else to complain about. I agree that some police officers carries out personal vendettas against individuals. However, it is also up to the police to truly adjust to the multi-racial reality of the United Kingdom. ID card or no ID card, the police has to change and that is not an excuse to prevent the introduction of a compulsory national ID card system.
If you look at the track record of the UK government in managing the introduction high profile IT projects, it does not bring much comfort. In recent years, there has been a list of examples which have in one way or another shown that government agencies do not have the experience nor the expertise to manage large complex IT projects. Moreover, this will be the most complex of systems yet introduced and it smooth running is paramount - there is no second chance in this project. It is vital that the government bites the bullet and obtains the best talents available to ensure that this project works it is rolls out and works the first time round.
Of course, by bringing in talents and external resources to help develop and manage such a large scale project means substantial cost implications. Additionally, there is the cost of making the actual ID card itself. However, it is money worth paying for. In any project, it is essential that planning and implementation is set against a fixed target. Many projects fail or overrun in timing or budget because of the constant shifting goal posts. The government is targeting the first passport with biometrics data in 2005 and first cards carrying such data in 2007. Targets can be ambitious, but they have to realistic at the same time. In terms of cost, the argument is that over time, money saved in cutting benefit fraud alone should justify the cost. Others have raised concern about the cost of installing biometrics equipment in every police station in the country. It is a poor excuse to compromise the security and welfare of this country on the basis of cost.
It would appear that biometrics data will be stored in at least three forms of official documents: ID cards, passports and driving licenses. The fact that an average individual can have multiple documents with chip-‘n-PIN technology means unreasonable costs. For me, it makes a great deal of sense to combine the function of driving license, National Insurance Number card, ID card and possibly others into a single piece of official document. Of course, there are those who claim that it is risky to have one card holding all the important personal details for if someone is unfortunate enough to lose such a card, he/she will be grounded. My argument is that such a card is something that you treat with respect and a great deal of care and those who manage to lose such an important piece of document should be subjected to a large, hefty fine.
What does it mean?
On the surface, the motivation behind a national ID card scheme is to improve the security of this country. However, once we look further, it is about personal responsibility and about changing the way government agencies work individually and how they interact with each other. It is about change on a personal level, on a social level and at the government level. If you think assuming more personal responsibility for oneself is not a good thing, then the ID card is not for you. If you think improving government efficiency is not a good thing, the ID card is a mistake for the country. If you think any of these is a good idea, you should embrace a compulsory national ID card.
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