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Cameron paints ID policy by numbers

He's artful, but lacking in detail

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David Cameron, the straight-talking public relations executive who runs the Conservative party, gave the reasons why he opposes ID Cards yesterday.

In a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the self-confessed "liberal Conservative" said the government was wasting its time with ID Cards because they would not protect our security.

He said they wouldn't stop terrorists, benefits cheats, illegal immigrants, or identity thieves. Further, the implementation of the computer system to run them was likely to be bodged, if the government's track record was anything to go by.

Yet, it was the speech of a liberal conservative with a small "l", which might as well mean centre with a big "C", and as such presented civil libertarian principles with provisos.

So while he said that ID card carrying countries like Spain and Germany had not been able to prevent terrorists under their dominion from attacking civilians in Madrid, New York, and Washington, he still expressed some support for mass surveillance of the British people.

"We must tolerate some violation of our privacy - for example, through the use of video surveillance cameras - in order to protect our security," his speech read.

But he criticised the "hasty and hysterical" reaction to security threats and the "tough guy posturing" that played into the hands of terrorists by belying Britain's "character, values and traditions".

"We must never allow ourselves to become such a regimented society that we hand the terrorists a victory," said Cameron.

"We must combine prudent precautions with a sturdy defence of people's right to live with a minimum of intrusion into their private life."

The Conservative line on home security suggests an emerging policy with some things still to be ironed out, as demonstrated also by its stance on the police collecting fingerprints and DNA.

When the police announced this week a pilot scheme that would have policemen collecting people's fingerprints at the roadside, the Conservatives said unequivocally that the police should not retain fingerprints of anyone who had not committed a crime.

But they have not been able to bring themselves to be anything quite as principled about police policy on the collection of DNA, a subject that is of greater concern to civil libertarians. The police decided in April, without any debate on the matter, that they would start collecting DNA samples from anyone they came across in their everyday business, criminal or not.

The Conservatives, said a spokesman, could not yet state that the police shouldn't keep DNA samples of people who have not committed a crime because there hasn't yet been a debate on the matter. How can they know if it's wrong to do so if they haven't had a proper think about it first?

This brings us back to the traditional principles that Cameron was harping on about. Guy Herbert, general secretary of the No2ID campaign against ID cards and the database state, said there was one British constitutional principle that was being threatened by the government's desire to collect, store, and massage the data it is storing on its many and growing databases of information about its citizens. That was Ultra Vires, which stresses that the government requires specific powers for specific purposes, and that those powers should not subsequently be used for other purposes.

That has not stopped the early function creep of various government and police systems, which are the incarnation - the back office, if you like - of its powers. So CCTV cameras up and down UK motorways, which were put in to help avoid traffic problems, are being attached to auto-number-plate recognition (ANPR) computers that automatically identify car registrations as they drive past. These are then linked to a DVLA database, which keeps a record of people's driving permissions, and police computers, which keep a record of people's criminal records. The sum of these parts is a civil administration that can see.

The government is aware that it cannot push its luck too far without trouncing the constitution. Hence, the Department of Constitutional Affairs' current review of laws that are meant to prevent a government from becoming too overbearing through the use of powers gained from sharing data between different government databases. The stated aim of the review is to see if the protections can be relaxed.

All this has been too complicated for the opposition parties to campaign against government, said Herbert. Few politicians really understand the dangers of a database state, and even those who do recognise that it's easier to attack the symbol of it all - the ID card - than the bits that could be of real bother. As he said: "No policical party ever won an election campaigning on Ultra Vires."

As the Conservatives have yet to fill out their position on the broader threat of the database state, we cannot tell what they really mean when they call for ID cards to be scrapped. ®

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