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UK public wants ID cards, and thinks we'll screw up the IT

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The great British public is overwhelmingly in favour of the introduction of ID cards, cares not a whit for civil liberties arguments, and is even more gung ho than David Blunkett about biometrics and having to carry ID with you all the time, according to a Mori survey carried out on behalf of IT consultancy Detica. But they don't want to pay for them, they're heavily sceptical about the government's ability to implement IT projects successfully, and only 10 per cent of them are very confident about the government's ability to hold personal information securely.

So how does that work then? Nearly 60 per cent of them don't believe the government will be able to do the rollout without screwing it up, and there's a high level of mistrust (27 per cent not very confident, 14 per cent not at all confident) in the government holding their personal data. Nevertheless, 80 per cent of them are in favour of ID cards - either they haven't really thought this one through, or they are prepared to endure a high level of personal sacrifice for what they perceive as the greater good.

And this 80 per cent represents an even more thumping majority than is immediately apparent. 50 per cent are strongly in favour, 30 per cent moderately so, with only 5 per cent moderately opposed, and a lonely 6 per cent ("We few, we happy few, we band of brothers") strongly opposed. Meanwhile, over 40 per cent think you should have to produce it on the spot for the police, with 60 per cent feeling you should have a week to report to a police station with it.

As one might expect, Home Secretary David Blunkett hailed the survey data, but bafflingly commented that: "it also demonstrates a degree of trust in terms of being able to protect privacy which I'm very pleased about."

Well, a very low degree is still a degree, we suppose. But aside from the positive headline numbers, the survey data exposes a number of serious vulnerabilities in the government's case. Aside from the issues of price and the confidence, the government ought also to be seriously concerned about why the public favours ID cards. Blunkett has recently been playing the terror card for all it's worth, but asked why they favour ID cards, the largest number (33 per cent) say because it will help prevent illegal immigration. Catching criminals is next (21 per cent), then helping you prove who you are (20 per cent), then prevention of identity theft, then consolidation of ID on one card, then prevention of terrorism (16 per cent).

The mismatch between what the government's been saying and what the people believe is all too clear. General ignorance about what ID cards can actually do has worked in the government's favour in the isolation of the civil liberties lobby, but that ignorance could now work against it - dare Blunkett switch horses back into a squalid and fraudulent sales pitch that leans heavily on the race card?

Detica itself seems slightly bemused by the public's views on the capabilities of ID cards. Although it does a good bit of IT consultancy work for the government and is currently engaged in some government ID card related projects, it's a technical consultancy with real depth, as opposed to a bunch of Blairite survey-wonks, so when The Register spoke to Detica this morning we found we didn't need to take the crucifix and silver bullets out of our bag - these people know what they're talking about.

Detica Head of Security and Risk David Porter agreed that the public was largely wrong in its view that ID cards would stop illegal immigration, and pointed out that the system is only going to be as good as the registration process. If this doesn't work properly, "then all of the biometrics in the world is not going to save you." And overall, although 94 per cent of people are aware of the ID card scheme, "two thirds have little or know knowledge of how it will work." This of course is not something the government has actually explained yet, so Porter is unable to comment on what the real cost is likely to be. Critics, however, have suggested it could be considerably higher than the government's promised £35 per head, and this level itself is a problem, as 48 per cent of people think the cards should be free, and only 19 per cent are prepared to pay over £25.

The public's apparent enthusiasm for biometrics is also a surprise, and suggests to Porter that the unpleasant association of inky fingerprinting with the word 'offender' no longer exists to any great degree. At around 50 per cent, almost as many people think the ID should be a fingerprint as do a photograph, while 40 per cent think an iris scan is fine, and around 35 per cent are keen on "DNA details stored on your card". They've clearly got the wrong impression of how you're going to have your DNA read, says Porter, but the point to be taken on board here is that the public is nothing like as conservative about the use of biometrics as was generally thought.

This unexpectedly high level of geekiness does not however mean the public is any less wrong in its conceptions about the system and its operation - perhaps it is not David Blunkett who has succeeded in getting the message across, but Captain James T Kirk.

Clearly, the civil liberties arguments have not worked and will not work, and arguments (as pursued at some length by The Register, links below) that ID cards are an expensive irrelevance to the issues they profess to tackle also cut little ice. But the cost of the scheme and the public's lack of confidence are different matters. Depending on how firm public opinion turns out to be on these, the government could find itself risking a great deal if it persists in pushing ahead at full steam. People may begin to take a closer interest in what they're getting for their money, and the explanations are likely to clear up some of their misconceptions. And of course, if it does turn out to be a Great British IT Disaster, they won't be very happy, seeing they suspect it will be already. ®

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