Friday, January 21, 2011

UK ID Cards Are No More!

In the last ten years, governments have fallen over themselves to try and obtain more information about their citizens. Sometimes it's databases, or new regulations, or cameras, but the one thing they have in common is that they can be used to identify you, and track you. Today is a positive step then, as in the UK, it's the last day for the “UK Identity Card” - after midnight GMT tonight, they will no longer be valid for use at all.

A sample card
Source: UK Home Office

The Identity card system was a perfect example of Big Brother. They were photo cards that, like a passport, enabled you to travel to other countries (but only a few countries, unlike a passport) and could be used to prove your identity, just like a modern photo driving license. What then was the point?

Well, there are a significant percentage of people in the UK that didn't have passports, OR driving licenses. They might use other documents to prove their age, such as a university identity card. The problem is, all these people are not on government databases. They are harder to track by 'Big Brother'. That's “The Bad”

The ugly is that these cards used Biometric data. That's a fancy way of saying 'body/person specific information.' The most common type is a photograph – the image of your face is biologically unique to your person – although fingerprints, and DNA are common types of biometric. These cards used fingerprints and photographs, while passports and driving licenses only use photographs. So, there's another major drive – it's another way for peoples fingerprints to get onto government databases, where they can be combed at need.

One of the few things that apparently endeared the Con/Lib coalition to the voters, was the abolition of the cards. It was seen by many as an expensive and ultimately useless program, that existed mainly to fill another database. The Identity Documents Act was proposed in 2010, and gained royal assent a month ago, making it law. The bill made all such cards invalid a month from Royal Assent, meaning today, January 21st is the last day they can be used.

So, how did the project work out?

Through it's entire availability period, only a few thousand people signed up for the cards, paying £30 for the privilege of handing over their details to the government, for a document a bit cheaper than a passport, but FAR less useful. People were so underwhelmed with it, that civil servants were trying to convince family and friends to sign up, and Manchester airport even created a new position, for someone to push the cards. It was an unmitigated FLOP.

It was sold to us on the grounds of stopping terrorism, of protecting UK borders, of preventing theft of services (such as the NHS) by proving eligibility, verifying eligibility to work, and incidentally helping with crime thanks to all those fingerprints on record. In reality, it did none of those things. The fingerprints weren't collected in enough numbers to make it worthwhile (and even if it was, this is a MASSIVE invasion of privacy), and every other reason has the simple problem that the card, like ANY other identify document, can be forged.

HOW much?!

The whole thing was a calamitous mess. The cost, overall, prior to its scrapping was £330 MILLION – a hefty chunk of change. Of course, that was offset by the people paying for the cards somewhat, but not much. Since at £30 a pop, it would have required 11 Million to sign up (26% of the UK population between 15-64). In reality there were 13,200 people who bought one, so the income was just under £400,000. That wouldn't even scratch the surface of the £41Million just paid to “developing the policy, legislation and business case for the introduction of identity cards”. That's right, over FORTY MILLION POUNDS was spent on
discussions on how to sell the idea to us. If nothing else shows corruption on this topic, that does.

Nor is the cost of getting rid of it cheap. The cost for wiping the databases, and physically destroying the data? £400,000 – more than the cards brought in. Of course, those people stupid gullible patriotic enough to buy one, won't get their money back either – a point which led one man to consider suing to get it back. Fortunately, since this same man was the one pushing for these cards for so long, and who later took a consulting gig with a firm tied to ID cards [David Blunkett],  he'd probably have more chance of winning spot-the-ball, than of getting any sympathy on that.

While it's a small victory against the ever encroaching surveillance society, and domestic terrorism policy, there is a lot more to be done. It should never have been created in the first place. It's also countered by other recent news, as the Northern Ireland High Court ruled that photographs, DNA and fingerprints of a 14yo boy arrested, but never charged with an offense, can be kept on file. The judge said that, despite a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights - that such broad collection and retention of data was a violation of the right to a private life - he had to abide by a 2004 ruling by the Law Lords that it was legal as the ECHR ruling was not binding.

It's a sad state of affairs.

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