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FAQ: ID cards in the UK

On July 3rd 2002, the UK Government published a consultation paper on a national identity card. Privacy International has investigated such proposals across the world for more than a decade. Here, we answer all the questions the government has failed to answer.

What sort of ID card does the government have in mind?
What is the difference between an "entitlement" card, and an identity card?
Will an identity card will help eliminate benefit fraud?
Will an identity card help prevent terrorism?
Is the card likely to be compulsory?
What if I simply refused to use the card?
Can I travel overseas without an ID card?
Can an ID card be forged?
What is the "biometric" system that the Government keeps mentioning?
What would the biometric mean in practice?
This system sounds complicated. How many components are there in the government's proposal?
Have similar schemes been proposed or adopted in other countries?
Are there any legal protections to limit the scope of an ID card?
This scheme will entail an unprecedented use of complex technology. Is the government capable of achieving this successfully?
How much will the scheme cost the taxpayer?
Who will pay for this scheme?
Will the government really listen to the public in the course of the consultation?


What sort of ID card does the government have in mind?

The government says it has "an open mind" on the precise nature of a national card. This is largely untrue. While the consultation document offers a vast range of possible options for a card, a number of core elements appear to have been generally agreed within government.

When Home Secretary David Blunkett announced to Parliament in February his intention to launch a consultation paper on an "entitlement" card, he spoke of a card "which would allow people to prove their identity more easily and provide a simple way to access public services would be beneficial". He added that such a scheme could "help to combat illegal working and it could also reduce fraud against individuals, public services and the private sector."

Five months later, following a substantial amount of work by his department in the development of the consultation paper, and after "widespread input" from the public, business and government, his July 3rd speech was remarkably similar in tone - and often identical word-for-word to his original statements. The consultation paper itself states "A universal entitlement card scheme would . . . establish for official purposes a person's identity so that there is one definitive record of an identity which all Government departments can use if they wish".

Placed together, these statements indicate a card system that will be used - at the very least - to establish the right to gain employment, open a bank account, receive government benefits and services, have access to education, and even possibly to gain access to the NHS. It is also likely that the card system will be directly linked to the issuing of passports and driving licenses, and eligibility to vote.

What is the difference between an "entitlement" card, and an identity card?

None whatever. Although government ministers and the consultation document all avoid the name "identity card", they speak constantly of the need for better identification of citizens. Indeed, the identification process is central to the government's proposal. In his July 3rd speech, David Blunkett said: "The focus should therefore be on whether entitlement cards would be genuinely useful to people in their daily lives and in affirming their identity. That will be the acid test of any scheme".

Will an identity card help eliminate benefit fraud?

The government has not provided evidence to support such a claim. David Blunkett went so far as to dismiss the significance of identity fraud in welfare, saying "benefit fraud is only a tiny part of the problem in the benefit system". The majority of fraud on the benefits system is through under-reporting of income, or non-reporting of financial and family circumstances. Benefits agencies worldwide agree that false identity is not a key issue.

Will an identity card help prevent terrorism?

The government has no idea. On July 3rd, in response to a question by Chris Mullin MP, David Blunkett said "I accept that it is important that we do not pretend that an entitlement card would be an overwhelming factor in combating international terrorism". Six minutes later, in answer to a question from Sir Teddy Taylor MP, he said he would not rule out the possibility of "their substantial contribution to countering terrorism".

Is the card likely to be compulsory?

Yes, but the government has convoluted this crucial point. Government ministers have almost unanimously ruled out the option for legal compulsion to carry a card, as indeed they have generally backed away from suggestions that the police will be given powers to demand production of a card. However, according to answers given on July 3rd, it is likely that the government will require everyone to register for a card. In this respect a parallel has been drawn with the voting system, in which registration is compulsory, but the act of voting is optional.

This prospect was made transparent when Mr Blunkett said in his launch speech "In a Parliamentary answer on 5 February, I ruled out a compulsory card scheme-compulsory in the sense that the card would have to be carried by each individual at all times. As I made clear, any scheme that was eventually approved would not entail police officers or other officials stopping people in the street to demand their card. We are not, therefore, consulting on that option."

Therefore, the government's stated definition of "compulsory" is: "not required to be carried by each individual at all times". Again quoting from the launch speech: "Everyone would register for and be issued with such a card, which would be required for the purpose of gaining access to services or employment".

The government has addressed the matter of issue of cards for children from the age of 5. In its consultation paper it identified 36 possible uses of cards in such circumstances as entry to pubs and sex shops.

What if I simply refused to use the card?

You will not be required to use a card unless you wish to work, use the banking or health system, vote, buy a house, drive, travel or receive benefits. As Mr Blunkett advised Parliament: "The issuing of a card does not force anyone to use it, although in terms of drivers or passport users, or if services - whether public or private - required some proof of identity before expenditure was laid out, without proof of identity and therefore entitlement to do it I doubt whether non-use of it would last very long."

Can I travel overseas without an ID card?

Probably not. David Blunkett explained to Parliament  "well over 40 million people, will automatically pick up the card, because they will need it to show that they are able and have permission to drive a car or are free to travel abroad" And referring to recent legislation in the US, strengthening border controls, he added. "A difficulty will occur with travel to the United States if we do not align what we are doing with the changes that are taking place around us... Because the United States is considering new ways of accrediting identification, and, if we do not match them, it will reintroduce visas for UK citizens visiting the US"

Holding other countries responsible for the government's proposals, he added "It is also because, as part of the Schengen information system, which some parties in the House support, the rest of the European Union will be introducing new biometric recognition for identification. If we are left behind, if we do not have a debate, and if, over the next two years, the House is not prepared to decide which way we will go, not only will we be left behind, but organised fraudsters across the world will know one thing: we will be the weakest link."

The ID card would become, he said, "a convenient travel document".

Can an ID card be forged?

Invariably, yes. The technology gap between governments and organised crime has now narrowed to such an extent that even the most highly secure cards are available as blanks weeks after their introduction. Criminals and terrorists can in reality move more freely and more safely with several fake "official" identities than they ever could in a country using multiple forms of "low-value" ID such as a birth certificate.

Criminal use of fake identity documents does not necessarily involve the use of counterfeiting techniques. In 1999, a former accountant was charged in London with obtaining up to 500 passports under false identities. The scam was merely a manipulation of the primary documentation procedure.

It is worth considering some inevitable formulae that apply across the board to the black-market economy. Whenever governments attempt to introduce an ID card, it is always based on the aim of eliminating false identity. The higher the "integrity" (infallibility) of a card, the greater is its value to criminals and illegal immigrants. A high-value card attracts substantially larger investment in corruption and counterfeit activity. The equation is simple: higher value ID equals greater criminal activity.

What is the "biometric" system that the Government keeps mentioning?

A biometric is a measure of identity based on a body part or a behaviour of an individual. The most well known biometrics are fingerprints, iris scans and signatures. The government says some biometrics are extremely secure and reliable forms of ID, and it appears very keen on the idea of iris or retina scans to establish one's identity or, at least, one's uniqueness.

What would the biometric mean in practice?

The iris scan would be taken upon application for a card, and would be used thereafter for major "events" such as obtaining a driving license, passport, bank account, benefits or employment. Your eye would be scanned, and matched both against the biometric on your card, and against a national database.

Mr Blunkett observed "It is virtually impossible -nothing is entirely impossible - to forge the iris, which is why people across the world are moving towards that system".

This system sounds complicated. How many components are there in the government's proposal?

The ID card is not just another piece of plastic. It is an integral part of a vast national information system. It is likely to contain four key components. The first is the card itself, which can be used for low-level identification purposes such as entering a secure building or renting videos. The second is a fingerprint or an iris scan, which will be linked to a national database. The third is an electronic storage chip, which will contain multiple levels of information about the card-holder. The fourth, and most significant dimension, is an information matching system based on the card's unique number and a central population database (similar to Thailand's), linked to a wide range of government and private sector organisations.

Have similar schemes been proposed or adopted in other countries?

Yes. Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand have very similar card systems. China is moving rapidly in this direction with the development of a compulsory ID database and card system. However no common law country in the world has ever accepted the idea of a peace-time ID card. The Australian and New Zealand public have rejected similar proposals outright. Canada has never agreed to such a scheme. ID card proposals have always been rejected by the United States Congress. No European country has such a comprehensive or invasive card system.

Are there any legal protections to limit the scope of an ID card?

Not really. The Data Protection Act provides some limited protections for the individual, but will not prevent the government from establishing an ID system. The first principle of the Act allows any such scheme provided legislation has been passed to regulate the card and its uses. The others merely set out fringe limitations on how data can be used, rather than whether data can be collected or matched.

There would, for example, be no legal barrier including the provisions of the Human Rights Act - to the government using a card and numbering system to create a "real time" link between employment, bank account data, the Home Office and Inland Revenue. The government has already signalled such intentions through the recent Cabinet Office report "Privacy & Data Sharing". The consultation makes clear that the government believes the ID card plan complies "with its obligations under the Human Rights Act."

This scheme will entail an unprecedented use of complex technology. Is the government capable of achieving this successfully?

The government has failed to successfully implement almost every large IT system it has ever undertaken. David Blunkett told Parliament: "I agree that it is important to recognise the past failures of Government technology systems".

How much will the scheme cost the taxpayer?

Somewhere between £1.5 and £3 billion over 13 years. However, the history of ID card cost estimates in other countries (notably Australia and the Philippines) has risen sharply toward the implementation stage.

Who will pay for this scheme?

We will pay for it out of our own pockets. The entitlement card scheme could be made self-financing by increasing charges for more secure passports and driving licences, discounted over the lifetime of the card, and by charging a lower card fee for those who do not have either a driving licence or a passport.

Will the government really listen to the public in the course of the consultation?

Despite statements to the contrary, the government tends to adopt a paternalistic attitude to economic management. On July 3rd, when challenged by his Parliamentary colleagues on central issues arising from the proposal, David Blunkett exclaimed, "this is degenerating into a contest with intellectual pygmies".

Perhaps it is neither fair nor wise to assume bad faith, but the government's record on other consultations has been abysmal. Policies are developed centrally, and all too often the process of consultation is merely a litmus test of public opinion.

Sources

House of Commons debate, 3 July 2002
Entitlement card consultation document
House of Commons, Answers to questions, 5 February 2002

 

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