Thursday, December 16, 2004

Open Rebellion

I am utterly disgusted by the Tory Party and their refusal to offer any opposition to the Labour plans to introduce ID cards. It is amazing that they think they look most principled if they try and position themselves to the right of the Labour Party when it comes to law and order! Yet the Conservatives have opposed a culture of political correctness, and object to the "nanny state" because it affects the freedom of the individual. How they can oppose abolishing the freedom to fox-hunt, and yet support an act that if misused could erode freedoms like never before, is entirely beyond me.

What are the supposed benefits of ID cards? We are told that it will help fight crime, but I have never once been told how this would happen. Besides, even if it would assist in these matters, it is far too draconian a measure to be taken seriously. Installing CCTV cameras would help guard against domestic violence, but would be an unacceptable infringement on the liberties of the ordinary citizen. There is a balance between liberty and security; ID cards take the balance one stage too far. We are told it would stop terrorism; again no evidence has been presented as to how.

We are told that it would help fight illegal immigration. This it may well do, but I doubt it will be a panacea to all the woes of administering immigration controls. If figures are to be believed, most illegal immigrants leave the country of their own free will rather than being deported; we have hundreds of thousands of guests in our country who the authorities have no record of, no idea of where they are. Simply enforcing everyone to carry an ID card will not help track down these missing people.

We are told that it would stop benefit fraud. Yet we already have the option, if we choose, of obtaining official documents that prove who we are - photocard driving licenses and passports. Official letters with proof of our address are not difficult to come by, either. And one of the biggest drawbacks of any ID card scheme is that it would be open to fraud itself. Whether through corrupt officials supplying cards to people not entitled to them, or through elaborate criminal schemes, people would be able to obtain fraudulent ID cards and "prove" their entitlement to national public services.

What then, are the drawbacks of such a scheme? The biggest is probably identity theft. No government would introduce an ID card scheme that it would admit to being fallible - that is, that it was easily open to copying and abuse. However, if someone's identity was to be "stolen" and used on a criminal's card, there would be very little he could do about it. Samizdata earlier this week had a post about a case of mistaken identity; there was a case a couple of years ago where a retired Brit got held for hours on holiday by the FBI because they confused him for someone else. Institutionalising this through an ID card scheme is profoundly worrying.

The second is the power to create a national database. Giving everyone a single number makes the transferring of information between government departments far more achievable; it will end up with the health service, for example, having access to information on social security or other information they simply do not need. More worrying is the amount of power a national database and ID card system will give to the police. We know the police have been prepared in the past to round up the "usual suspects" and prosecute them for crimes they know they could not possibly have committed. Automatic powers of asking for ID cards, which will be needed if any scheme is to work, will increase the powers of the police to an extent that I simply cannot agree with.

Finally for now is the question of what information is on the cards themselves. I don't know what the government is planning to put on now; what I do know is that once the cards have been introduced they will be almost impossible to remove. Once the cards are in place, it is a much smaller step for the government to ask for certain pieces of information to be placed on the card. And yet, a government scheme of this magnitude should hold up for all circumstances. History shows us, for example, that information considered unobjectionable at one time has later had catastrophic consequences. The Austrians in the 19th century demanded that all Jews have a special stamp on official papers; at the time this was a mark of pride due to the intellectual Jewish circle in Vienna at the time. Of course, when the Nazis came to power, rounding them up became a lot easier. Similarly in Rwanda - the Belgian government marked on identity cards whether one was Tutsi or Hutu. Come the genocide, all you had to do was ask for someone's papers. The fact is that we do not know if information which may seem harmless enough now could cause serious damage in the future. What would happen if, God forbid, the BNP ever came to power? What sort of information would they want on our cards, and for what vile purposes? Yet once we have the ID cards the tide cannot be stopped; once the principle is accepted, the information provided by them will be extended.

I implore British readers of this blog to join me in protesting this action. And if it does get passed, as it almost inevitably will, I ask you to join me in an act of civil disobedience. Refuse to carry the card. The legislation has no justification. Resist the illiberal and dangerous acts of this Parliament.