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Compulsory and centralised - UK picks hardest sell for ID cards

Study finds scheme design hits public's hot buttons

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By using both compulsion and a central identity register in its ID card scheme the UK Government has opted for the combination least popular with the public, according to a study carried out by the Open University. The results of the study, Privacy Attitudes and the Acceptance of Identity Cards in the UK, are due to be published in the Journal of Information Science, and show increased levels of suspicion in the public over both of these key aspects to the ID scheme.

According to OU senior lecturer Dr Adam Joinson, who led the study, "The combination of compulsion with a centralised database led to significant drops in support for ID cards. When this scenario was presented, even those who had been categorised as 'privacy unconcerned' moved strongly against them.

The results of the study suggest that removing people's choice about whether or not to have an identity card not only reduces public support, but also leads to a 'tipping point' where those ambivalent to the arguments of privacy and civil liberty campaigners begin to oppose ID cards in increasing numbers."

That second point will be of particular significance if the ID scheme goes ahead as planned, because the compulsory nature of the scheme will become all too apparent as people begin to renew their passports and find themselves summoned to biometric enrolment centres. The general public's knowledge of the ID scheme remains vague, and will quite possibly remain so as ID cards roll out, but when they're forced to have one, the antipathy to compulsion Joinson identifies will begin to kick-in.

The study itself used Westin privacy segmentation (placing the sample population in categories running from 'Privacy Fundamentalists' to 'Privacy Un concerned') and tested reaction to various permutations of scheme, effectively playing off the Government scheme against the LSE's suggested alternative. General hostility to compulsion was surely predictable, given that people tend not to like being told what to do, but that's one the Government would have to take on the chin, even if it did listen (yes, we know...), as compulsion will be necessary if it's to achieve the universality it thinks is necessary for the scheme to succeed.

Hostility to the central register is however interesting. The LSE recommends a decentralised scheme using trusted third parties, and the Government has argued against this by claiming that use of third parties would make the scheme inherently less reliable and less secure than the centralised version. At this juncture we could of course clear our throats and point out that Home Office documentation for would-be contractors indicates that it itself plans to use data centres hosted by, er, third parties. But no, we'll press on.

We can presume that the public at large has not as yet wrapped its head sufficiently around IT security concepts to have developed a detailed and reasoned argument against the notion of a central register. The study's results, however, would seem to suggest that scepticism over the Government's ability to build IT systems and doubt over its fitness to act as a custodian of personal data produce the same kind of answer as the experts arrive at.

Which, if the scheme does go ahead, perhaps gives us some indication of how it will come to grief. Because of the fatally-flawed nature of the design concept the ID scheme will be prone to outages, failures and security breaches. As these occur its existence will be coming more forcefully to the attention of the voters as they first, are forced to get ID cards, second, begin to experience the failures themselves, and third, begin to read the headlines about disasters and cost overruns. That kind of spiral would within a couple of years have a powerful effect on what appears to be at the moment merely a tendency towards hostility. But by then, what will we be able to do about it?

The ID Cards Bill itself returns to the Commons today to have compulsion put back into it, and subsequently will be back in the Lords so that (we hope) it can be removed again, and we can go ahead with the constitutional crisis. The OU study, which is part of an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded project called 'Privacy and Self-Disclosure Online' (prisd.net), is available here. ®

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