Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Extent Of Blair's ID Card Intrusion Revealed

In a response to the 27,000 people who have signed the petition on the Downing Street website opposing the ID card scheme, Tony Blair has revealed the extent to which our civil liberties will be slashed. You can read the full letter here. Blair's tone has become ever more defensive and I couldn't help but go through it paragraph by paragraph. Apologies for the length of the post it is almost Unity size.

The petition calling for the Government to abandon plans for a National ID Scheme attracted almost 28,000 signatures - one of the largest responses since this e-petition service was set up. So I thought I would reply personally to those who signed up, to explain why the Government believes National ID cards, and the National Identity Register needed to make them effective, will help make Britain a safer place.
Yes it's a big number. Not in the road pricing league, but a great response to an online poll. Good to see that the knee-jerk response isn't to reconsider the legislation, but rather to explain why it will go ahead anyway. As an aside, does anyone believe that Tony wrote this "personally"?

The petition disputes the idea that ID cards will help reduce crime or terrorism. While I certainly accept that ID cards will not prevent all terrorist outrages or crime, I believe they will make an important contribution to making our borders more secure, countering fraud, and tackling international crime and terrorism. More importantly, this is also what our security services - who have the task of protecting this country - believe.
I simply do not think that the views of our security forces are the most important factor to consider for an issue like this. Security services by their nature will always push for greater and greater powers. As a democracy, it is vital that the government hold these demands in check and prevents an overmighty police/security force. If we follow Blair's argument then we would allow all of the powers available to the former KGB if security forces thought this would prevent "international crime and terrorism".

So I would like to explain why I think it would be foolish to ignore the opportunity to use biometrics such as fingerprints to secure our identities. I would also like to discuss some of the claims about costs - particularly the way the cost of an ID card is often inflated by including in estimates the cost of a biometric passport which, it seems certain, all those who want to travel abroad will soon need.
Is it really wrong for us to assume that government figures that relate to large-scale technology projects will come in way over forecast? What evidence does he have that they can deliver projects on time and on budget?

In contrast to these exaggerated figures, the real benefits for our country and its citizens from ID cards and the National Identity Register, which will contain less information on individuals than the data collected by the average store card, should be delivered for a cost of around £3 a year over its ten-year life.
Comparing the ID card to a store card misses the entire point about compulsion. We can choose whether to have a store card or not. I also have more faith in the commercial pressures that would prevent Tesco abusing our data than the government as we shall go on to see in the rest of the letter.

But first, it's important to set out why we need to do more to secure our identities and how I believe ID cards will help. We live in a world in which people, money and information are more mobile than ever before. Terrorists and international criminal gangs increasingly exploit this to move undetected across borders and to disappear within countries. Terrorists routinely use multiple identities - up to 50 at a time. Indeed this is an essential part of the way they operate and is specifically taught at Al-Qaeda training camps. One in four criminals also uses a false identity. ID cards which contain biometric recognition details and which are linked to a National Identity Register will make this much more difficult.
There is not a system in the world that cannot be cracked. Terrorists and criminals will hack these systems and they will ultimately not be secure. The biometric passport has already been hacked and you can read more about this here.

Secure identities will also help us counter the fast-growing problem of identity fraud. This already costs £1.7 billion annually. There is no doubt that building yourself a new and false identity is all too easy at the moment. Forging an ID card and matching biometric record will be much harder.
But again, not impossible.

I also believe that the National Identity Register will help police bring those guilty of serious crimes to justice. They will be able, for example, to compare the fingerprints found at the scene of some 900,000 unsolved crimes against the information held on the register. Another benefit from biometric technology will be to improve the flow of information between countries on the identity of offenders.
This is an astonishing admission. The government is effectively going to trawl through the database and match old crimes to the information that we give them. Worse than that, this data will most likely be shared with all EU countries along with our DNA under an agreement discussed here last week. Mistakes will be made and innocent people will be implicated in crimes that they have not committed. This is a significant and unprecedented invasion of privacy. Where is the protection against crimes that might be put on the statute books by future governments that can be "solved" using the database? This information will be shared across government departments and ultimately abused. What additional information will be added to the card over time? How will this data be used?

The National Identity Register will also help improve protection for the vulnerable, enabling more effective and quicker checks on those seeking to work, for example, with children. It should make it much more difficult, as has happened tragically in the past, for people to slip through the net.
ID cards could speed up this process, but at what price to the rest of us? The government could start by fixing the mess that exists within the existing system. Why don't they know where paedophiles are today?

Proper identity management and ID cards also have an important role to play in preventing illegal immigration and illegal working. The effectiveness on the new biometric technology is, in fact, already being seen. In trials using this technology on visa applications at just nine overseas posts, our officials have already uncovered 1,400 people trying illegally to get back into the UK.
So why not just store biometric data for people who are trying to enter the country? Why do you need it for all of us?

Nor is Britain alone in believing that biometrics offer a massive opportunity to secure our identities. Firms across the world are already using fingerprint or iris recognition for their staff. France, Italy and Spain are among other European countries already planning to add biometrics to their ID cards. Over 50 countries across the world are developing biometric passports, and all EU countries are proposing to include fingerprint biometrics on their passports. The introduction in 2006 of British e-passports incorporating facial image biometrics has meant that British passport holders can continue to visit the United States without a visa. What the National Identity Scheme does is take this opportunity to ensure we maximise the benefits to the UK.
Maximise the benefits? Nobody else is pushing this hard against civil liberties. The US will certainly not go there and have sensibly forced the issue back onto governments such as our own. In any event, do we need to blindly follow companies and other countries or should we chart our own path using the principles of freedom and privacy that have been ours for centuries?

These then are the ways I believe ID cards can help cut crime and terrorism. I recognise that these arguments will not convince those who oppose a National Identity Scheme on civil liberty grounds. They will, I hope, be reassured by the strict safeguards now in place on the data held on the register and the right for each individual to check it. But I hope it might make those who believe ID cards will be ineffective reconsider their opposition.
That is not the aim of this letter. Anybody who was opposed to ID cards will not have been appeased by these weak arguments. Most of the most powerful arguments have not even been addressed.

If national ID cards do help us counter crime and terrorism, it is, of course, the law-abiding majority who will benefit and whose own liberties will be protected. This helps explain why, according to the recent authoritative Social Attitudes survey, the majority of people favour compulsory ID cards.
I'm sure that this is true, but how were the questions asked and who was surveyed. I'm sure I could construct polling questions that could deliver the opposite result. In any event, isn't it Tony Blair who always tells us that public opinion shouldn't matter (e.g. Iraq) and that he makes his decisions based on principle.

I am also convinced that there will also be other positive benefits. A national ID card system, for example, will prevent the need, as now, to take a whole range of documents to establish our identity. Over time, they will also help improve access to services.
I would rather have a range of documents from a variety of sources than one piece that could be systematically abused.

The petition also talks about cost. It is true that individuals will have to pay a fee to meet the cost of their ID card in the same way, for example, as they now do for their passports. But I simply don't recognise most claims of the cost of ID cards. In many cases, these estimates deliberately exaggerate the cost of ID cards by adding in the cost of biometric passports. This is both unfair and inaccurate.
The government has no credibility on this point.

As I have said, it is clear that if we want to travel abroad, we will soon have no choice but to have a biometric passport. We estimate that the cost of biometric passports will account for 70% of the cost of the combined passports/id cards. The additional cost of the ID cards is expected to be less than £30 or £3 a year for their 10-year lifespan. Our aim is to ensure we also make the most of the benefits these biometric advances bring within our borders and in our everyday lives.
blah, blah, blah.

Yours sincerely,

Tony Blair
Bugger off.


james higham said...

This is one of the best pieces I've read on this issue, though Guido's succinct comment was good.

I've downloaded [copied] your piece and will do a post later on your post.

The Moai said...

I fisked this too, over at the Nameless One's blog, here.

It was fun pointing out all the logical problems in his arguments, then depressing when I realised it made jack all difference.