The category description

Taking liberties, one Byte at a time

December 2, 2008

Jim Hare responds to

I have been sleeping much better these days now that I can look forward to a lovely identity card coming along sometime soon with my new passport. It’s great to know that I shall have my vital statistics secured in digital format, no expense spared. I’ll no doubt be getting a full life history to go along with it. It will probably know more about me than I do myself.

It’s certainly going to be great fun for the Executive, thinking of all the uses that the card can be put to, all the data that can be collected, all held safely at the heart of government. Where I go for my holidays, where I work, what trains I use, where I shop, the football team I support. The list seems endless. And it will be. It’s easy to install card readers – we’ve had them for years – and you can put them more or less anywhere you like. All you need to do is develop the airport approach to life: a swipe of the card adds another few bytes to your digital databank. Great for posterity – you’ll be able to look back and see how many times I went to Asia – or to Asda. Idyllic as this may sound, I’m reminded of a book I read many years ago, where people were under constant surveillance, their every move watched and recorded. The idea was to keep everyone safe but it achieved the opposite. There was no individual privacy. There was state-induced fear, orchestrated by the eponymous Ministry, its foundations laid by means of a manufactured, constant war. Almost 25 years from the title of that work of fiction, many of its speculations are becoming reality.

The concept of the identity card itself is fairly innocuous. It merely aggregates data which is already available in various forms. The problem is what it can be made to do, and the accompanying methods and processes for ordinary daily life (the wraparound). The state clearly already knows a good deal about me – tax, health, school, and so on. These all seem relatively sensible, understandable and tolerable. There are valid reasons for the information to be collected, and reasonable ways for me to ensure that it is correct.What can be done with this information is a completely different proposition. The identity card hits the information jackpot for an authoritarian state, effectively an exercise in massively adding to the levers of power and control. Never mind the argument: ‘if you’ve done nothing, you have nothing to fear.’ However well meaning the intention, no-one can be sure that it will not be misused to the detriment of individuals, and of course society as a whole. It’s about more power in the hands of government, quasi government, and potentially downright non-government organisations, including organised crime.

I don’t believe that there are sufficient levels of trust or confidence in the state to allow it to acquire such a massive extension to its already large powers and controls. If anything, given the incompetence displayed in more or less every department of state – economic, transport, energy, etc – at best it is clear that reverse applies. What price the introduction of more powers to the state – and very importantly, the insidious introduction that they will have? There is a grave danger that the state will be able to use its new found powers to threaten, exploit, and subjugate.

The democratic levers at the disposal of the citizen are weak when it comes to dealing with the powers that will be wittingly or unwittingly unleashed on behalf of the state. Even the briefest historical perspective should give pause for quiet reflection of similar sinister episodes in both recent and distant times. Our system of justice and legal processes are not instrumented or sufficiently tuned to arbitrate these matters effectively. Consider how the ‘Land of the Free’ was unable to able to deal rationally with the Guantanamo phenomenon, while the UK House of Commons was pressganged into voting for 42 days detention of suspects without charge, having failed to obtain sanction for 90 days, a massive blow to Tony Blair’s leadership at the end of 2005. Over the past six years, the UK government has made serious efforts to abolish habeas corpus and trial by jury for certain offences. We already have more CCTV cameras per capita than any other country in the world. Now the police are getting tasers. There is absolutely no ideology behind any of these thoughts. Simply the precautionary principle. An identity card is not a library card. We need to seriously ponder where all this is leading, and why.