Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Henry Porter on ID cards

Henry Porter gives an eloquent statement of the case against ID cards in today's Guardian:
Some, like the editor of Prospect, David Goodhart, have attempted to portray the cards as "badges of citizenship embodying the idea of the contract between citizen and state". The argument is superficially comforting. "They help us to know who is in the country and what their status is and to protect the precious entitlements of all existing citizens." There is no mention in his recent essay of the database or the terrible potential for intrusion and control. And of course the idea of this being a contract is ridiculous when one party is being forced to sign or face penalties. The notion of a badge of citizenship is codswallop being put about by people who are too impressed by authority and too weak to oppose it.

When reading the ID card bill I am constantly struck by its minatory tone - the threats of fines and the general contempt for the average citizen. There's a reason for this. Rather than being something that is designed to help us, the card and the register are, in fact, tools of government control and surveillance. Over and above the information you have supplied at enrolment (please note the voluntary connotations of the word enrolment ) your file on the NIR will build an entire picture of your life - your hospital visits, your children's schools, your driving record, your criminal record, your finances, insurance policies, your credit-card applications, your mortgage, your phone accounts (and, one presumes your phone records), and your internet service providers.

Every time you get a library card, make a hire-purchase agreement, apply for a fishing or gun licence, buy a piece of property, withdraw a fairly small amount of your money from your bank, take a prescription to your chemist, apply for a resident's parking permit, buy a plane ticket, or pay for your car to be unclamped you will be required to swipe your card and the database will silently record the transaction. There will be almost no part of your life that the state will not be able to inspect. And it will be able to use the database to draw very precise conclusions about the sort of person you are - your spending habits, your ethnicity, your religion, your political leanings, your health and even perhaps your sexual preferences. Little wonder that MI5 desired - and was granted - free access to the database. Little wonder that the police, customs and tax authorities welcome the database as a magnificent aid to investigation.

But know this: from the moment the database goes live, we will become subjects not citizens and each one of us will be diminished in relation to the state's power.

Something enormous and revolutionary is about to happen to us. We are giving the most precious part of ourselves to the government, allowing it complete freedom to roam through our privacy. And it's not just to this government, but to the governments of the future, the nature of which we cannot possibly know. And it's not just our privacy - it is the rights and privacy of future generations. While we are comfortable about handing this information over to the state, the citizens of the future may feel strongly about our complacency and our faith in the British government. We have a duty to those people, just as all the people who fought for the rights we enjoy today felt a sense of obligation to us.

The prime minister asks us to trust him and implies that abuse of a database would be unthinkable in Britain. But after the lies before the invasion of Iraq, the revelations of the Hutton inquiry and the evidence about rendition flights using British airspace I would suggest that we treat these sorts of assurances and appeals with the utmost suspicion.

Remember this government's attack on liberty. Remember what we have already lost - the campaign that has diminished defendants rights, introduced punishment without a court deciding that the law has been broken, restricted protest and speech and even assembly. Blair is unabashed about his record and has taken to describing civil liberties as a privilege that may be removed from someone the moment they become a suspect or a defendant.

I am afraid I do not trust the government's motives - nor do I trust its competence. The past decade is littered with failed government IT projects - the Child Support Agency, the immigration records, the working tax credit database, the farmers' single payment scheme are a few that come to mind. This is to say nothing of its record on security. The NIR will literally have thousands of entry points where the information on your file can be accessed.

One of the worst failures of a government database came to light a few weeks ago when the Home Office admitted that the Criminal Records Office had wrongly identified 2,700 people as having criminal records. I cannot think of a clearer case of defamation and it is surprising there is not some kind of class action against the Home Office. Not only were these people's reputations seriously damaged, many were turned down for jobs as a result of the CRO's mistake and can therefore argue for a serious loss of earnings. But the Home Office did not even apologise. It is exactly the arrogance that I fear will come to characterise all government dealings with the person in the street once this database is operational.

As I said, I am instinctively - genetically, as I put it - opposed to ID cards and the Identity Register. I am also politically opposed because as the government database grows, I believe there will be a commensurate lessening in the state's respect for each one of us. We will be reduced to the great mass of classified specimens, pinned down and itemised like dead butterflies in a showcase. Because of the power it possesses over us, I believe the government will gradually become less accountable and less responsive to the needs and wishes of the people. Whereas once politicians were our servants, they will become our masters and we their slaves.

I have philosophical objections, too. In a free country I believe that every human being has the right to define him or herself independently and without reference to the government of the time. This, I believe, is particularly important in a multicultural society such as ours. The ID card and NIR require and will bring about a kind of psychological conformity, which is utterly at odds with a culture that has thrived on individualism, defiance and the freedom to go your own way.

And it will remove the right of those who for whatever reason wish to withdraw from the cares of the world and the influence of society, to resort to the consolations of solitude and privacy without inspection from a centralised authority. Privacy, anonymity and solitude are rights, and we are about to lose them for ever.

People say that everything about you is known already. Someone has calculated that each of us appears on up to 700 databases. But the real point is that everything that is known about you will become linked up on the NIR. The register will take on a life of its own, for once you set up a system like this it becomes ineluctably compelled to find out more and more about you. That will be its hardwired purpose.

Imagine handing over the keys to your home when you are out at work to allow some faceless bureaucrat to rifle through your desk and drawers, your photograph albums and children's school reports, your bills and love letters. That is the kind of access they are going to have, and it is going to grow as time goes by and we become accustomed to this unseen presence in our lives.

Well, it's not for me. I cannot do it. I will not do it, and I hope you won't either.

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