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13 November 2003Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

Playing the ID card
The British government is introducing ID cards because it feels that its citizens are strangers.

by Josie Appleton

The Home Secretary David Blunkett has unveiled plans to start issuing identity cards to millions of British citizens within three years, and to make the card compulsory within 10 years (1).

As a practical policy to combat crime, illegal immigration or terrorism, these identity card proposals make very little sense. The plans only make sense as the product of a paranoid government that wants to get a handle on its population. The government wants to know for sure who people are. It doesn't seem to want to know for any particular reason or to achieve any particular end; it just wants to know.

Blunkett's White Paper, 'Identity Cards: The Next Steps', talks about the cards providing a 'secure form of personal identification' (2). He worries that greater global mobility and advancing technology is making it 'increasingly difficult to protect and authenticate people's identity'. The information on the card - your name, address, photograph, iris pattern, and fingerprints - would be held on a National Identity Register, which would provide a 'single highly reliable record of a person's identity'.

Of course, every modern state wants to know who its citizens are, but these proposals border on the obsessive. The government's desire to know for certain who somebody is means that Britain may become the first country to use iris recognition as a way of identifying its citizens.

Running throughout the document is a preoccupation with anybody who might be trying to evade or deceive the state. The bogeymen that Blunkett conjures up to justify this policy are symbols as much as anything else.

Take the concern with 'identity theft', for example. Of course, some people steal credit card details to buy goods, or send spam email from false addresses - but identity cards are hardly a solution to this widespread electronic fraud, since you can't currently show your card (or your face) online. There are also those shady types who live, travel or launder money under aliases - but this is neither a new nor a common occurrence. The government seems to be concerned about identity theft, not because of the scale of the problem, but because of what it symbolises: someone trying to conceal their 'real' identity from the state.

More bizarrely, 'Identity Cards: The Next Steps' suggests that identity cards will help forge individual and collective identities. A bit of plastic bearing vital statistics is here being attributed with a huge metaphysical power - to give individuals a secure sense of themselves and their place in the community. So the report says that cards will 'enable [individuals] to assert their identity and that they belong here'. The card will help to forge a more cohesive society, the report argues: 'It will show that everyone belongs to our society whether they were born here, have chosen to make their home here or are just staying for a while to study and work.'

What all this reflects is the government's sense of distance from the public. At a time when voting is at an all-time low, and public suspicion of politicians is at an all-time high, it is no surprise that the government feels that its citizens are, in effect, strangers. Hence the desire to establish with absolute certainty who people are - and the paranoid concern with those who are perceived as evading the clutches of the state.

ID cards represent a society where we are constantly having to answer for ourselves
The notion that people will band together around their ID cards is, however, fanciful. Civic pride and cohesion can't be issued by bureaucrats - such things come out of people's lives in their communities, and they involve issues more substantial than their iris patterns. And anybody who genuinely feels that their card allows them to 'assert their identity' is less a model citizen than a model patient for the men in white coats.

As Dolan Cummings has argued on spiked, Blunkett's proposals for ID cards are in effect trying to 'reconstitute the public as a membership organisation' (see Badging the British). The government is trying to build a new civil society - a new kind of community that is tied directly to the state, rather than going about its unknown business. By issuing ID cards, the state gets to say who does and does not belong to the public. In return, the public is expected to show its commitment as a member of this ID-card community - forking out up to 77 a shot.

Blunkett has claimed that the cards will help to tackle illegal immigration and terrorism - but it is hard to see how. Knowing the names and fingerprints of everybody in the country won't stop terrorists - after all, the 9/11 hijackers lived openly under their own names in America and Germany. Identifying terrorists requires specific intelligence rather than general knowledge. Similarly, once they have entered the country, illegal immigrants would be able to evade ID card controls just as they do at present with existing checks on identity.

What does all this mean for our civil liberties? In immediate practical terms, not very much. ID cards will only contain very basic information - rather than data such as health, bank and tax records, as was previously suggested. Government agencies and the police will be restricted from accessing information from the National Identity Register - they will be able to verify someone's identity, but not much more. In addition, the police won't be able to stop an individual and demand to see his or her card.

What's more, the government has chosen such a timid way to phase in the cards that we probably won't notice much difference. In the first stage, ID cards will be issued in the place of people's passports and driving licences when they run out - and for everybody else, the cards will be optional. In 10 years, the government estimates that around 80 per cent of the population will be covered by this method - and so when the cards are eventually made compulsory, there won't be much of a fuss.

But the cards do represent an attack upon the culture of liberty - upon our sense that we can do as we please within the law, and mix freely with others. What ID cards represent is a society where we are constantly having to answer for ourselves - constantly having to say who we are, to prove our identity to officialdom. They also symbolise a society where we are mistrustful of our fellow citizens. In Blunkett-world, we should only trust those who have become a member of the ID-card community, and are allowing the powers that be to keep tabs on them.

When it comes down to it, the cost of ID cards will be far more than 77.

(1) 'Millions to get ID cards within 3 years', The Times, 12 November 2003

(2) See Identity Cards: The Next Steps (.pdf), November 2003

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