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UK.gov poised for climb-down on ID cards?

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The UK government's plan for an "entitlement" (aka ID card) may be undergoing serious revision and downscaling, reports BBC news. Home Office Minister Lord Falconer, who in December was pitching the scheme in glowing terms, and claiming the British public favoured it, seems to have been preparing for a swift retreat.

Falconer has always struck The Register as the bloke who walks behind with the shovel, and the highly-spun December announcement seemed to us to fall into this category. He was advancing for Home Secretary David Blunkett to test the waters, and over the past few weeks it may have transpired that they're just a little too chilly right now.

The government has been running a consultation exercise on entitlement cards, which are intended to facilitate secure interaction with government services, but which would inevitably be applied in a far wider range of circumstances, for almost six months now, and it is due to finish at the end of this month. Falconer's claims of support were based on a laughably low response rate, but more recently campaigners, including Stand.org.uk and Privacy International have most assuredly tipped the scales decisively in the other direction.

The Home Office is still quoting 2,000 responses, breaking down two to one in favour, but as Privacy International and Stand say they've submitted 7,000, massively against the scheme, this clearly cannot be, and uk.gov will shortly be forced to confess that people don't want ID cards after all.

Not, of course, that 7,000 can be seen as exactly a victory for democracy. It's certainly better than the government can do under its own steam, but it's the sort of number that might swing a medium marginal constituency in a national election, rather than anything that could possibly be said to reflect the opinions of the entire electorate. After considering first, the lamentable failure of its own consultation exercise and, second, the fact that a handful of pressure groups have been the dominant factor in the result, the government might care to ask itself a couple of questions.

First, mightn't it be getting a little ahead of itself in its schemes to get Britain online? (We think it's a safe bet to say most of the government's own responses were postal.) And second, does it seriously believe the majority of the citizenry is actually interested in interacting with it on a general basis, as opposed to just using the internet to interact with government when it provides a faster and more convenient way of doing whatever it is they have to do (e.g. pay taxes)? Third, given that on the odd occasion when the Great British Public does react in large numbers it's when it really doesn't like something, mightn't it have got itself more democratically buried if it hadn't spun the consultation, and had made a serious effort to tell the public about it?

As for the specifics of this particular consultation, Falconer is now making questioning noises about weighing the scheme's advantages against risks to privacy, human rights and social values, while Jonathan Bamford of the Office of the Information Commissioner asks, "Do we risk changing the fabric of our society so that the highest level of identification becomes the norm for the most mundane of services?" That one's actually the killer - if everybody's got one, then every service, public and private, is going to demand it, and as it's an ID that potentially joins up every piece of information they all have on you, it would indeed massively change the fabric of British society. Which is probably something that would wake the electorate up, if they knew. ®

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