ID Cards and the moral battlefield

8:45 am - November 26th 2007

by Robert Sharp    

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For those opposed to the ID card scheme, it is easy to see the silver lining to the recent news that the taxman has lost 25 million records in the post. While the disappearance of these CDs causes grave concern for the people who’s data has gone missing, the incompetence does undermine the case for ID Cards: “We cannot afford a similar error on the national ID database,” (the argument goes) “… so, lets scrap the scheme”. Tactically, yes, I think it is an argument we in the anti-ID card lobby should be making loudly… but let us never forget that the administration of the system is a practical reason to oppose the scheme, and not a moral or ideological reason.

Even if (in some thought experiment world, some Cloud Number 10) the government could 100% guarantee the security of the data, I would still be opposed to the scheme, because the political relationship between citizen and state does not change when the State buys a better computer system. Nor, for that matter, would it change if the cost of the scheme were to rise or fall. Brighton blogger Neil Harding recently changed his mind on ID cards, based on these practical reasons. While his interlocutors crowed at his volte-face, it seemed an empty victory to me. The moral argument was sidelined.

This matters, because arguments for ID cards seem to be made up exclusively of practical reasons. Advocates in Government and the security services play down the costs, and instead cite ‘convenience’ and ‘efficiency’. The moral aspect to their argument – that the cards will offer a measure of safety from terror and crime – is unproven and untested, and has the unmistakeable allure of the post hoc about it.

Meanwhile, here in the anti-camp, the opposite is true. The moral resistance to any change in the relationship between individual and state is conceptually prior to, and transcends, the concern over costs or data-security. If we successfully communicate this to our fellow citizens, we shall win the debate. Are you reading, op-ed writers?

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About the author
Robert Sharp designed the Liberal Conspiracy site. He is Head of Campaigns at English PEN, a blogger, and a founder of digital design company Fifty Nine Productions. For more of this sort of thing, visit Rob's eponymous blog or follow him on Twitter @robertsharp59. All posts here are written in a personal capacity, obviously.
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Reader comments

Similarly, I think, we should stop talking about ID cards all the time. It’s the national identity database that’s the problem. The need to have a means to identify yourself sounds so innocuous. Not so some huge supercomputer at the heart of Whitehall.

(BTW, note to self: take your own advice as well as dishing it out…)

I’m going to be controversial here, but I believe that ID cards and national ID databases aren’t inherently evil: they are widely accepted and seen as a good thing in other European countries, such as Finland. So it’s not inherently a moral issue I don’t think.

Everyone now exists on databases, public and private; if there are errors in the data, the only recourse they have is through the understaffed and backlogged ICO

Isn’t the issue that in the UK, people do not trust the government, to (a) have the correct information and (b) use it fairly? And now (c) look after it safely 😉

If I was going to promote the ID card (or national ID database, or even just trust in the government), I would start by giving people a sense of ownership over the data that is held on them by giving them gratis access to *all* the data held on them (with limited exceptions) and the right to demand corrections.

3. Margin4 Error

I’m with Peter

While there are ideological matters at stake, the winning arguments are practical.

For example, what of the benefits of an ID card scheme? has anyone explained how it will ensure workers and employers who collude to keep work off the books for tax and benefits reasons won’t continue to do so? Has anyone explained how it makes people safer from crime or terrorism?

Add to that the practical problems of securely storing all that data and no ideology is needed to win the argument.

4. Andreas Paterson

As the resident ID cards cheerleader, I’ll have to say something here, although I ask that you don’t judge me too harshly. While I may be supportive ID cards, I’m very much against extending the 28 day detention limit, for example.

What I find confusing about the anti lobby in this case is trying to pinpoint exactly where the change in relationship between the state and the individual occurs.

It it likely that most individuals have records on the DVLA, Passport Service, NHS and HMRC Databases as well as those of other state agencies. With all this data, I don’t see why the government having a record for each citizen in the new database is a problem.

The bigger problem is the idea of data sharing, the NIR will make it possible to connect together these databases and potentially it would be possible to view an individual’s passport, medical and income details from one central record. This I agree is a far more worrying prospect, however, it is one that could be mitigated with proper controls on what data is shared.

The obvious question here is why have data sharing at all? The reasoning, in my view is because the current government databases are a mess. Containing serious amounts of inaccurate, out of data and duplicate information. The National insurance database contains 73 million records, for example. The ability to verify data against a central source which has strict controls to ensure it’s accuracy will do wonders for the accuracy of government databases.

As to why such accuracy is a good thing. I would use the example of the individuals who were wrongly branded as having criminal records by the Criminal Records Bureau. Had the CRB access to more accurate data it’s far less likely that this accident would have happened.

To summarise then, provided there are proper controls on sharing of data I don’t see anything morally wrong with an ID card scheme.

“I agree is a far more worrying prospect, however, it is one that could be mitigated with proper controls on what data is shared.”

Unfortunately you’d have to be a complete naif to believe that proper controls on data sharing are even close to being on the Government’s agenda.

It it likely that most individuals have records on the DVLA, Passport Service, NHS and HMRC Databases as well as those of other state agencies. With all this data, I don’t see why the government having a record for each citizen in the new database is a problem.

Have a read of this piece from Minority Report about privacy, and this piece from Matthew Parris about the efficiency of the state systems…

In any case, being opposed to a new centralised database does not mean an endorsement of the status quo.

7. Andreas Paterson

Robert, I’ve read the articles, the Minority Report article takes things to what is ultimately possible through data sharing. This in my opinion is well beyond what I belive should be done and also well beyond what the government intends.

Let me suggest a simpler example in the form of housing benefit, administered by local councils. I don’t think it’s inconcievable that on moving house, or getting a job that someone might “forget” to inform the housing benefit department when they move house, or if they get a job.

Using two data sharing services, one provided by HMRC one provided by the NIR. Basically the HMRC one takes a person’s particulars for input , checks it against it’s own database and returns whether this person’s situation has changed in the last month or so, and the date of the change. The NIR service takes a persons particulars and returns whether these details are correct or not.

A local council can then perform regular checks before it pays it’s housing benefit to know A) If the person still lives at the address, B) If the person’s earnings details are likely to have changed. This kind of data sharing would seem to me like a sensible idea to me.

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