Advocates of the scheme want to set up a "smart border." But we should be wary before handing over so much information to the governmentby Dylan Bhundia / August 10, 2018 / Leave a comment
A person has his fingerprints taken at border control. Photo: PA It seems that ID cards have always been on the political agenda in the UK since World War Two, without ever being important enough to make the leap from an idea to a fully implemented policy. Once again, it has been put back on the political agenda. The Conservative leaning think-tank Policy Exchange have proposed reintroducing a “national IDsystem” in response to the Windrush scandal. David Goodhart, head of demography, immigration and integration at Policy Exchange, said that the ID registration system that will be used for EU citizens in the UK after 2020 should be extended to current UK citizens. ID cards have been used before in the UK, most notably from 1939-52 to help authorities distribute rations and heighten security during and after World War Two. More recently, the Identity Cards Act was passed in 2006 before the coalition government killed it off in 2010. It is important to clarify a difference between these examples and the details of the report. In the report, Goodhart and Norrie make clear that such a system “should not require a physical ID card or BRP (biometric residency permit)”—it should be a digital system instead. Concerns about illegal and mass, uncontrolled immigration fueled the vote to leave the EU in 2016—according to a report by Kirby Swales, 20 per cent of leave voters cited immigration as the most important factor in deciding their vote. By giving each and every citizen a digital ID, the report suggests we can continue to have the levels of immigration that are required for the economy, whilst also ensuring that our border is secure and efficient. Goodhart argues that in a sovereign, post Brexit Britain with control over its own borders, it is very much the time not for “the elimination of borders… but for the smarter border.” Harvey Redgrave, senior research fellow at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, rallied behind the proposal. Whilst Policy Exchange proposed an initial voluntary scheme, Redgrave took it a step further, proposing “compulsory digital identities” for everyone in the UK. He cited the example of Estonia, where “encrypted ID’s allow people to authenticate themselves online, so that they can vote, submit tax claims, or manage medical prescriptions without leaving the house.” Alongside this increased efficiency, Redgrave argued that such a system would make it “harder to operate under false pretenses” and “radically shift the incentives for anyone contemplating gaming the system.” He does have a point. Surely, if when using public services, everyone was required to prove their identity through a centralised database, it would avoid the “landing card” mistakes that occurred with the Windrush generation? Yet why should the Home Office be given even more responsibility? Windrush is just one example of countless mistakes that the department has made regarding immigration, other examples being the detention of vulnerable women for months on end without charge at Yarl’s Wood, and the alleged prioritising of more profitable visa applications. Guy Herbert, general secretary of campaigning group no2ID, launched a scathing attack, describing the proposal as “just nonsensical”. The scheme, he said, would “[create] more bureaucratic problems” in a Home Office that had already shown it was “incapable.” Campaigns manager James Baker was equally hostile, saying that the proposal ignores the fact that “countries with an ID system still suffer with illegal immigration.” In this, he is correct—the best example being Germany, where estimates show high levels of illegal immigration, despite the fact that there is a strict ID system in place. Baker went on to say that the proposal “doesn’t explain how someone with no documentation gets an ID,” and since such a system is susceptible to non-compliance, that it wouldn’t be worth the high costs involved. Whilst we do live in a digital age, it is wrong to make the assumption that everyone has the capability of using a system like this, both in a monetary sense and an operational sense. Privacy and data protection are a concern, and this is what makes the entire idea troublesome. Making access to public services entirely reliant on an IT system built by the Home Office is risky, bearing in mind Whitehall’s poor track record in delivering large scale, reliable and secure IT systems, the casing point being the NHS cyber-attack last May. Whether people are willing to take that chance remains to be seen. The fallibility of such a system appears to be the main sticking point. A sticking point that turns both people and the Home Office against this idea, who when questioned saidthat the government “had no plans to introduce an ID system for UK citizens.” So, will a national ID system continue to stay on the periphery of politics, an issue not quite defining enough to garner much support and is therefore drowned out by bigger issues? I think so. And so it should. We must be extremely cautious when handing over so much data to the government, both because of the regular bureaucratic incompetence that they demonstrate—and the likelihood of that system being subject to a successful attack.