Are ID cards either philosophically or pragmatically justifiable?
Emphatically no. A requirement for every citizen to carry a device that enables the authorities to demand immediate information about them dramatically changes the relationship of individuals to the state, from being private citizens to being numbered conscripts. An ID card or device (technology will rapidly supplant plastic cards because the latter are too easily lost or stolen) is a surveillance instrument, a tracking device, like a car number plate or the kind of tag punched into a cow’s ear.
Any animal (including, soon, the residents of Britain) thus tagged and numbered is a trackable, controllable unit, exposed 24/7 to monitoring. And history teaches that once an instrument of control lies in the hands of authorities, they will use it: from “protecting against terrorism” (if only!) to catching tax-avoiders to finding defaulting child support-payers to collecting parking fines to watching members of the Socialist Workers’ party to snooping on individuals against whom rumours and gossip have turned attention: and so on. Who can guarantee that a government in these islands 20, 40, 60 years hence will be as benign as the one, today, that wishes to tag us all for the greater ease of policing us? In the absence of a guarantee, why create now a giant computerised “national identity register” ready for the hands of a possibly less benign future?
The main pushers of an identity surveillance system—the biometric data companies who stand to gain billions—tell us that the iris and fingerprint details that will link you to the computer that stores your address, medical records and so on can be stored on a chip the size of a full stop. This can be implanted in your earlobe, ostensibly to protect against loss or theft, and read by a device similar to a barcode reader. I asked David Miliband what the difference is between this and a number branded on your arm. His furious response was proof that I cut close to a nerve.
Making “identity recognition” a precious commodity will create a huge new criminal industry dedicated to stealing, forging and manipulating identity cards/devices. Remember BMW’s thumbprint security for their cars, and how thieves simply cut the thumb off the owner in order to drive away his car? We are destined to become a nation of Van Goghs so that thieves can access our bank accounts and votes.
No informed individual or agency wants the ID scheme: see what people like the assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and—unanimously—everyone other than the government minister present said at a meeting in the Palace of Westminster earlier this year. No one who cares about civil liberties and individuals’ rights could so cavalierly shrug their shoulders as those who seem to me to be enacting a trahison des clercs over the matter.
Sent in by Alan James, York. Send your philosophical queries and dilemmas to AC Grayling at email@example.com
How might an acceptable ID system work? See David Birch, writing in this issue