Like it or not, Britain will have an ID card scheme within a few years. But the government may be missing a trick: modern technologies mean that a national identity scheme can do much more than simply prevent people doing things they shouldn'tby David Birch / March 17, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
Britain is going to have a national identity card scheme. The government’s bill won its second reading before Christmas by 385 votes to 93. So it is time to stop debating whether it is a waste of money and whether it will do anything about terrorism, illegal immigration and so on. Instead, we should focus on how to make the scheme work. For that we need to know what the technology can and cannot do.
In a society where huge databases—private and public—store information about most aspects of our lives, the card itself is largely irrelevant when it comes to privacy. When he was home secretary, David Blunkett pointed out that if cheap and effective biometrics—unique physical identifiers—could be developed, the card might become superfluous. For instance, if you decided to go swimming at the local pool, you would walk in, a machine would register some physical detail (a CCTV camera might scan your face), look you up in the government database, pass your details to the local authority (to charge the fee to your account) and to the police (to check that you were not on an offenders’ register). No need for a card. Nevertheless, I think a card is desirable. To see why, we need to look at what the identity scheme should do and how it might do it.
Separating the card from the register
The scheme proposed by the government (see box below) has two key technological components: a national identity register and a national identity card. The register will assign all citizens a unique identifier—the “national identity registration number.” Two sets of computers are needed to implement this scheme. One set will form the register in a government office somewhere. Its focus will be preventative, stopping people from claiming benefits that they are not entitled to, working illegally and so on. Another lot of computers, the government hopes, will be built into smart identity cards in people’s pockets. Its focus should be on…