In the name of the law

The London bombings have intensified the debate over the government’s plans to introduce compulsory identity cards. SA Mathieson reports

The plans discussed here were broadly those which entered law through the Identity Cards Act 2006. I wrote about identity cards from 2002 until 2011, and have published a history of ID cards in Britain: more information here.

Powered by article titled “In the name of the law” was written by SA Mathieson, for The Guardian on Thursday 14th July 2005 10.17 UTC

‘I don’t argue that ID cards would prevent any particular act,” home secretary Charles Clarke told Radio 4’s Today programme last Friday, the morning after the bomb attacks in London. “I doubt it would have made a difference.” Clarke said the question to be asked instead was: “Does a particular measure help or hinder? I actually think ID cards do help rather than hinder.”

The Home Office’s impact assessment for the identity cards bill says the scheme will “help disrupt the support networks of terrorists and organised criminal operations, which rely extensively on the use of multiple identities to make it more difficult to monitor their activities”. It adds that the audit trail on how all adults use their ID cards would be utilised to make the lives of terrorist suspects harder, forcing them to find round-about ways to stay in hotels, hire cars and buy mobile phones.

However, criminals already steal cars and mobile phones to cover their tracks. Furthermore, if perpetrators are unknown to police, such an audit trail would help only after an attack, not before.

“The robustness of the proposals as they are presented still needs further examination, but if they make it very much more difficult to get multiple identities, you would provide some lever to making these things less likely,” says Brian Collins, professor at Cranfield University and an adviser to last summer’s home affairs select committee report on the plans.

The impact assessment also mentions benefits such as swift access to personal and biometric information, and greater police efficiency.

However, campaign group No2ID claims that searching the biometric database for crime-scene fingerprints or faces on camera footage would make police less efficient. “You would end up with thousands of suspects, a fishing boat of red herrings,” says general secretary Guy Herbert.

No2ID says biometric technology is not up to the job, citing the UK Passport Service’s recently released trial of the three biometrics to be used in the identity database, involving more than 10,000 people. Facial recognition had a failure rate of 30% in recognising those already on its database, using cooperative individuals in booths rather than security camera footage. Fingerprints had a failure rate of 17%, using electronic samples of all 10 prints rather than crime-scene prints. The trial used a sample database of 1m fingerprints, far smaller than the hundreds of millions that would be built by the ID card plans. Iris scanning was more reliable, with a failure rate of 3.3%, but it requires high-quality cameras and the individual’s cooperation.

Professor Collins says that despite the Passport Service findings, there is potential for scene-of-crime fingerprints to be used with the biometric database. However, “if it’s a suicide event, it doesn’t help at all”.

Some believe the plans could have a negative effect on policing. “My biggest objection, [and the objection] of many to this scheme, is the impact I know it will have on racial minorities,” Shami Chakrabarti, director of civil liberties group Liberty, said. “It won’t be the home secretary, or his family, or people that look like him, that get hassled for their ID card in a doctor’s surgery, on the street, at every port and call. It will be people who look like me.”

She said this had been the experience of every European country with compulsory ID cards, and with UK stop-and-search powers.

A recent report published by the London School of Economics (LSE) claims the government’s identity plans could, in fact, create new opportunities for terrorism. “A fully integrated national system of this complexity and importance will be technologically precarious and could itself become a target for attack by terrorists or others,” it says.

The authors say the plans for a single identification number could increase identity fraud, citing the experience of the US social security number, which has become a popular starting point for those seeking to hijack someone’s identity.

The LSE report suggests a decentralised alternative, with the central database slimmed to little more than a checklist of applicants and individuals backing up their card data with organisations they choose. Applicants would be endorsed by those in certain professions, as with UK passports and Sweden’s ID card. The authors say it would be less intrusive, less open to abuse and cost about a quarter of the government’s plans.

The LSE report gained most publicity for its estimate of cost: between £10.6bn and £19.2bn, compared with the government’s £5.8bn. Opposition MPs have said the money could be better spent on policing.

And the introduction of the ID card scheme is set to take up police time in itself: No2ID intends to mount legal challenges when the plans become law, followed by a refusal to enrol. As of Tuesday, 9,600 people pledged online to refuse to enrol and to pay £10 into a legal fund. (The pledge only becomes binding once 10,000 people have signed up to it.) They include George Galloway, the Respect MP. “I will not have an identity card, and I vow millions of people in this country will not have one, either,” he said.


Home Office ID impact assessment


Passport Service trials

YouGov poll

LSE report

Pledge Bank © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.