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Blair puts compulsory ID card on fast track for UK

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UK Prime Minister Tony Blair yesterday made it clear that the government now feels it has sufficient public support to accelerate the introduction of compulsory ID cards. Speaking at his monthly press conference, he said that "we will need to readjust our terrorism laws still further. I have to say this to you, and I think that the whole issue of identity cards that a few years ago were not on anybody's agenda are very much on the political agenda here, probably more quickly even than we anticipated."

Later, in response to a request for clarification regarding last autumn's Cabinet decision "to defer ID cards for a few years," Blair said that: "in relation to ID cards... I think there is no longer a civil liberties objection to that in the vast majority of quarters. There is a series of logistical questions, of practical questions, those need to be resolved, but that in my judgment now, the logistics is the only time delay in it, otherwise I think it needs to move forward."

So he's he's not saying that civil liberties objections have gone away, simply that the objectors have now been sufficiently isolated for the government to introduce cards without sustaining political damage. Nor is he directly saying that the Cabinet delay deal has been torn up, but that is the clear implication of his response to the second question. Finally, he is saying that deployment will be faster than anticipated (by everyone except Home Secretary David Blunkett, that is) last autumn, and that the only issues in the way are technical, logistical and practical.

That last one is worth more than just a passing nod; the British Government (alongside governments throughout the world) is proceeding on the presumption that it is manifest truth that ID systems are a cost-effective weapon against terrorism. It has conducted no significant research into whether or not this is in fact true, nor into how the specific systems it is currently devising will improve the effectiveness of the anti-terrorism, immigration control and crime prevention systems it already deploys. 'Well,' as much of the population now says, 'it's obvious, isn't it?' Well, if it is, a detailed study of how it would work in action would prove that pretty conclusively, wouldn't it? What seems obvious can often turn out to be wrong, especially when acted on by politicians. The UK, however, is about to commit one of the primary sins of IT system specification by commissioning a project without first figuring out how (or whether) it can achieve its stated objectives. Which is how all the Great British Government IT Disasters commence.

The series of questions that prompted Blair's first reference to ID cards is significant here, not least because it wasn't actually about ID cards - Blair brought these up unprompted, in a context where their relevance is dubious (which is perhaps appropriate). An Al Jazeera representative pointed out: "More than 500 people, British Muslims, have been arrested under the Terrorism Act 2000/2001. Charges were pressed only against seven of them. Don't you think that policy gives credit to some critics that say there is racial profiling in Britain?"

Blair first responded, with some justification, that under the circumstances many of those questioned will be Muslims. Next, asked about the potential for this causing conflict with the British population, he moved on to "we need the laws we have," and then on to their extension, including the introduction of cards. But folks, rewind here - what is it that the arrest rate should be telling us?

The very low hit rate for arrests under the PTA 2000/2001 is of the same order as the hit rate the US has been experiencing in its post-9/11 investigations, and of that experienced by the UK in much longer period when it was dealing with the Provisional IRA. During this period the UK repeatedly ratcheted up the toughness of the legislation, but this appears to have had no demonstrable impact on the security services' effectiveness. So now there's a certain logic to lots of Muslims being arrested and released, whereas previously there was a logic to lots of people at least suspected of being Irish being arrested and released (not, unfortunately, for 20 years in some cases). The commonality however is large numbers of arrests, very low numbers of prosecutions - the best legislative repressions of successive governments have fulfilled the need to be seen to be doing something, but really haven't done much that was effective.

Consider also the possible impact of a future ID card system on the most recent waves of arrests. We can reasonably presume that the security services had a fair idea of the identity of most of the luckless 500 before they pulled them in, and that any others who might have been collared in passing will have been IDed pretty swiftly afterwards. So there would have been little in the way of immediate benefit to be derived from any of these having ID cards. There would likely be a subsequent effect for these people, as a record of their arrest linked to their ID card would possibly affect their future arrest prospects, and would probably disrupt any international travel arrangements they might have. You could however say that this bummer of a deal (for the majority of the 500 who are surely innocent) would simply be an automation and global extension of the systems we've already got, i.e. the ones that don't work very well. They are the 'suspected of being Irish' de nos jours, and that's the price they pay in the War on Terror.

As regards those who really are guilty, most of them don't turn out to be obviously guilty until they've actually done something, and although they have ID documentation, this does not say in big letters "Terrorist". The US government's profiling plans do indeed anticipate some form of equivalent to this, whereby individuals deemed to have a higher than normal probability of being a future terrorist will be singled out for special attention, but unless you believe that you can profile the whole world and that profiling works, this is sheer madness. Otherwise, presence or absence of an ID card has no demonstrable effect on the success of the security services - this (as UK experience over the past 30 years has shown) is largely dictated by how good they are at their job, and how well they know they organisations they're fighting.

There's one last oddity to yesterday's events. Immediately before Blair's press conference, Immigration Minister Beverley Hughes resigned, having discovered that she had 'inadvertently' conveyed the wrong impression as regards immigration. The issue is currently under investigation, but Hughes' resignation confirms that there is a problem, and the specific issue she resigned over was her failure to reveal that she had known about it for over a year.

Now, here is the problem as best as can be established at the moment. The size of the backlog of immigration cases (both asylum and general) has been a major issue for the current government, and Hughes (who reported to David Blunkett at the Home Office) was presiding over the acceleration of the processing of applications. It appears that in at least some areas this acceleration process resulted in the systematic rubber-stamping of applications. Cases from Bulgaria and Rumania have been cited where forged documents were approved, and where pro forma business plans were sold to applicants fraudulently applying under a programme designed to bring in self-sustaining business startups. Allegedly, the UK authorities were alerted to these fraudulent applications and to their rubber stamping, and Hughes herself had the matter drawn to her attention last year by one of her own ministers.

So friends, what do we have here? If we had ID cards, what would have been happening? At the same time as Blunkett's Home Office has been thumping the ID card tub on the basis of its efficacy against crime, terrorism and illegal immigration, that very same Home Office has known as a matter of record (this is not, we accept, the same as actually knowing or even noticing) that it's been granting immigrant status to people who are not going to perform in accordance with what it says on the tin they just bought. Granted they're a lot more likely to be one-legged Bulgarian plumbers who don't know anything about plumbing than terrorists, but still... Their application rubber-stamped, under the future system they would then have been issued with ID cards, and would have happily acquired a perfectly legitimate UK identity on the basis of whatever it was they'd chosen to fill in. Moral: the Home Office might be best advised to sort out the loopholes and system failures it already has before introducing new ones to fix. ®

Related stories

Blunkett ready to force through compulsory ID for UK
Draft ID card bill makes it to Queen's speech
Mission impossible? Blunkett's big biometric ID adventure

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