|Montreal, May 15, 2004 / No 142|
by Ralph Maddocks
In his post-WWI tome, The Economic Consequences of the Peace (Macmillan, London, 1919), John Maynard Keynes lamented the loss of a world where the internationalisation of social and economic life "was almost complete." In it, he wrote that the inhabitant of a pre-1914 London could "...secure forthwith, if he wished it, cheap and comfortable means of transit to any country and climate without passport or other formality..." I wonder what he might write today of the grandchild or great-grandchild of that same inhabitant's forthcoming need for a biometric passport and an internal ID card?
One of the arguments heard most frequently when the question of identity cards is raised is some version of the shop-worn platitude, "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear." So it came as little surprise to read a letter in the UK press from the British Conservative Foreign Affairs spokesman in the European Parliament in Brussels, one Charles Tannock. This gentleman, answering a letter to the press condemning the ID cards and biometric identifiers proposed recently by the UK government, wrote in part; "I have possessed a Belgium ID card since being elected to the European Parliament, and have never been asked to produce it inappropriately. Belgium is no less a democracy for having such cards. In the modern world, with our security threatened, identity cards are a small price to pay to enable the state to adequately protect its citizens."
The estimable Mr. Tannock, affected perhaps by the somewhat rarefied air of Brussels, does not seem to recall that most of his fellow Europeans, especially those living in Spain, are obliged already to carry such documentation. Documentation which failed lamentably to prevent the bombings of the rail network in that sunny land a few weeks ago. This, in a country possessing one of the largest per capita police forces in the European Union in addition to its renowned Guarda Civil. Mr. Tannock seemed completely unaware that false identities are thought to be used in at least one third of all terrorist activities, and that bogus or multiple identities are used widely in organised crime. It should not be forgotten though that in politics facts are rarely allowed to intrude upon the free expression of uninformed opinion.
The good Mr. Tannock fails to mention too that while enjoying his financially rewarding life as a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) spent wandering around the more salubrious quarters of Brussels, he is much less likely than most to be stopped and asked for his papers. This, if for no other reason than that officials there are issued with a book of photos so that they can recognise the MEPs and be suitably obsequious to them. Mr. Tannock has perhaps never seen the way "visimin" visitors are dealt with at the immigration desk at Zaventem airport. If he hasn't, then perhaps he should try appearing there wearing a burnous or with his skin painted some suitably tenebrous colour. Nor is Belgium the democracy he claims. The Belgian Vlaams Blok (VB) party, whose 18 MPs have all been freely elected to the 150-seat Belgian Parliament, has just been banned as a political party. The democratic body which did this, the Court of Appeal in Ghent – famous for its left-wing bias – believes it to be an "undemocratic and racist" organisation because of its policy that immigrants should be given only two choices: "to assimilate or to return home."
Returning to the topic of ID cards. A few weeks ago, Tony Blair gave ID cards his official seal of approval, claiming that objections by those concerned about civil liberties had been largely overcome, and that the principal challenges were now technical. He speaks of a project to find a perfect machine, ignoring that very often laboratory equipment does not work quite as well in the real world. Most likely what will happen is that the equipment he proposes to use will become obsolete in ten years time anyway, having been superceded by devices designed to meet some newly designated EU (read Franco-German) standard. The US system too will probably not be compatible with either and another round of US/EU argument will ensue.
There has been no discussion yet in the UK Parliament of the Draft Bill recently introduced by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, and even when enacted the Bill is not expected to become operative until 2007. At that time, all new passports and driving licences will include biometric data, and such documents will become compulsory only in 2013. Mr. Blunkett, expects that 80% of the population will hold biometric identification either in the form of a passport, a driving licence or a voluntary ID card.
The estimated cost of this liberticidal project is some £3.1 billion ($7.5 billion Cdn) and a MORI poll found that only one in five of those polled said that they would be prepared to meet the suggested £35 ($84 Cdn) charge. A combined passport/ID card is to cost £77 ($186 Cdn) and a combined driving licence/ID card will cost £73 ($176 Cdn). Concessions are planned for the poor and the elderly and their first card will be provided free to all 16 year olds. It was not immediately clear whether or not these figures include such things as compliance costs, card replacement costs, back-up system costs, enhanced visa application and "non standard" biographical footprint checking that the government did not include in its estimates.
Mr. Blunkett has said that the biometric system proposed would end multiple identities and give a boost to the fight against terrorism and organised crime. Interestingly enough, the MORI poll found that the main reason people gave for supporting ID cards was to prevent illegal immigration, not terrorism or identity theft. Immigration is an intractable problem in the UK, the solution to which the present government seems unable, or unwilling, to find. In another version of the ancient "If you have nothing to fear..." statement, Mr. Blunkett said, "What has anybody to worry about having their true identity known?" and "They have got everything to fear from someone stealing and misusing it."
Obviously having heard the comments mentioned earlier, Mr. Blunkett then said that the British card will be more sophisticated than the existing Spanish card, but offered no evidence that any type of ID card would have stopped the Madrid massacre. Always quick to change his mind under pressure, the Home Secretary added later that, "The primary reason for having ID cards is not because we believe they will stop terrorists. It will contribute towards the overall task of prevention but it will not guarantee that we will not be hit. It can't." He told the BBC's Radio 4 Today programme that ID cards "couldn't solve Madrid [the bombings] because nobody has biotechnology today."
In the cases of both 9/11 and Madrid the attackers appear to have had valid ID, so biometric valid ID is neither here nor there. Despite having had this put to him by numerous interviewers Mr. Blunkett seems unable to stop presenting biometrics as some kind of magical solution to the world's problems. He went on to explain the situation of countries who didn't have biometric ID: "Those without biometrics will be known as the easiest touch. That's why we need to be ahead." However, he added: "It will make a big difference to the operation of the counter-terrorism and security services. They believe it, and I believe them."
According to Simon Davis of Privacy International, in the 25 countries worst hit by terrorism over the last 20 years, some 80 per cent had national ID card schemes and almost two thirds of terrorists operated under their real identities. According to the Sunday Times, the UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw secured agreement that it will never be mandatory to carry the ID card and that a Commons vote would be required before police can require a card's production. In addition, it would not be necessary to produce a card in order to obtain hospital treatment or welfare benefits. However, Mr. Blunkett disputed this, pointing to sections 15-18 of the draft as giving the necessary clearances. This section does indeed seem to make provision for public services to hinge on ID cards, but specifically rules out the compulsion to carry them at all times or to produce them for the police. Privately though, Mr. Blunkett has been reported as saying that he wants people to carry them at all times. Given the propensity of governments to control their citizenry, this provision may be enacted fairly quickly.
In what must be so far the most hilarious aspect of all this effort to control the movements of people, it has been announced that thousands of Muslim ladies will not be embarrassed by having their photographs shown on the proposed ID cards. This announcement came as Blunkett faced attack for not allowing enough debate over the introduction of ID cards. Fingerprints and iris scans will be the chosen method for identifying ladies whose religion obliges them to cover their faces. Officials on the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) said that although they support the idea of identity cards they were concerned that they could be used to persecute ethnic minorities. A legal advisor to the MCB said, "As we have seen with the anti-terror laws and with stop and search, if powers are used in the wrong way they can have the effect of singling out a community for no good reason." Nothing to worry about here though, as everyone knows, Muslim ladies would never allow themselves to be used as suicide bombers. As the Arab man in the street will confirm, the perpetrators of 9/11 were really from Israel.
Prior to the introduction of this odious Bill a trial scheme, run by the Passport Service involving some 10,000 volunteers, was supposed to begin on February 2, but began only on April 26! One might wonder why this particular service was given that responsibility when it has ruined so many people's vacations because of the lengthy delays involved in issuing regular passports. Details of the delays emerged last week when it was made known that the Passport Service's contractor, ATOS Origin, had to make a number of improvements to the pilot project's testing booths, known as "enrolment pods." These included: changing the resolution and focus of the facial recognition camera: introducing a system to allow single fingers to be re-examined for prints and changing the background in the booth to a "consistent texture" for use during an iris scan. Despite this, Mr. Blunkett remains confident that, as he said, "I happen to believe that once we get this up and running ... people will queue up for it and we will have to deal with a flow and a flood of people wanting it much earlier, wanting to renew their passport to get an ID card very fast."
Judging from a MORI poll he may well be right. The poll revealed that almost 80% of those questioned supported a national ID card scheme, results which echo previous poll findings. Surprisingly, that same poll showed that 65% believed that information held in government databases would be shared by government departments and an unbelievable 50% thought that it would be handed out to unauthorised persons outside government. Similar proportions have said that they would be happy to carry a card with them at all times.
This seemingly passive acceptance of ID cards by the British public coupled with the government's efforts to be politically correct, would indicate that the public are completely unaware of any dangers they may represent. There is, as the Earl of Selborne, chairman of the Royal Society's influential science in society committee, noted, "... a very real danger that we are sleepwalking into our technological future." Some supporters of the measure believe that ID cards should contain information which may be useful in a medical emergency such as blood group or allergies. "But," as the Earl added, "what if the cards also held data about our genetic disposition to specific diseases, or revealed information about our lifestyles that affect health, such as how much we are overweight or how much alcohol we are drinking, updated daily. These are technically possible in the future, so we should be discussing whether they are desirable." Desirable or not, the health fascists must be in transports of delight at the prospect.
Perhaps it is totally unconnected, but the 8,000 book library at the Guiseley School in Leeds, Yorkshire announced recently that it intends to introduce a new system where, instead of the usual library ticket system, all the students are to be electronically finger printed. Although only one finger print is necessary, they are going to take two, just in case! Allegedly the idea is to prevent students from using each other's cards and, as the librarian stated, to comply with the Data Protection Act. This is in spite of the fact that Privacy International has warned that the practice of finger printing for the purpose of library cards was in clear violation of the Human Rights Act and the Data Protection Act. The law states that privacy invasion must be proportionate to the threat and the loss of a handful of library cards hardly warrants mass finger printing. It is also likely that the fingerprinting practice breaches Article 16 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says "no child shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his or her privacy..."
The UK already collects, without their consent, the fingerprints and DNA of all persons stopped by police for any reason, whether that person is charged subsequently or not, let alone found guilty. Since 1995, the UK National DNA Database has collected 2.3m genetic profiles, representing 5% of the adult population (and 9% of all men). This is more than any other country in the world: for example, in the USA, the FBI's database holds profiles for less than 1% of adults. Recently, it enabled the first criminal conviction based on a new "familial" DNA technique which uses relatives' DNA to find a suspect. This DNA database will grow exponentially and rapidly, there being no legal impediment to prevent it.
For a country which has more CCTV surveillance and facial recognition of its citizens than any other in the world and which is using RFID devices in increasing quantities, the successful introduction of biometric ID cards will make the UK the world's most watched and followed nation. Some distinction indeed. The proposed ID will be in essence a licence to exist legally; without it (Mr. Blunkett proposes a fine of £2,500 ($6,050 Cdn) for refusing to supply information for the card after 2013 when they become compulsory) one will become a non-person able to be harassed by the authorities at will and deprived of access to many of life's necessities.
If its conception and introduction are flawed in any way – a one tenth of one percent error rate would mean some 60,000 mis-identified people roaming the length and breadth of the UK – there could be much unpleasantness in store for anyone unfortunate enough to be caught up in that bureaucratic error. Does anyone believe that no data entry errors will be made?
The prerequisite for success will be the establishment of a massive database capable of being accessed rapidly and at will by those claiming to need to use it. However, the initial entries will of necessity have to be created using conventional identifying methods such as driving licences, medicare cards, etc. The irony is that if the system is sufficiently flexible and able to verify biometric data taken directly from a suspect within seconds then there is really no need for an ID card at all. Once everyone's finger prints, facial appearance and /or iris patterns are on the system, then short of an accident or a criminal act altering the stored pattern, each person will be carrying around their own identifying data anyway.
Even George Orwell might be astonished by all this, let alone John Maynard Keynes.
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