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'Non-compulsory' ID cards poised for a makeover?

Kinder, gentler, don't mention the database

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Death by neglect

And they might not care for more helpful reasons - they simply cannot afford to build it. It has already been downgraded from a single new database to a hodge-podge of existing ones, and in the event of the electorate letting the current Government hang around for long enough, the database aspect of the project could crumble further for lack of resources, inspiration, or anybody in the Cabinet who actually cared enough to keep going.

Mightn't it end up just as a database of whatever the Identity & Passport Service needs to collect to issue passports? It'd be as leaky as everything else until such time as the Government figures out that, alongside Sir Tim Berners-Lee telling it how to open up information, it needs a couple of smart security people to tell it how to close it down. But the situation mightn't be hugely more dismal than it is today.

It is however doubtful that the current Government will be around for the corpse of the National Identity Register to go off. So what would the Tories do?

In a recent speech, David Cameron committed his party to scrapping the ID card scheme and the Contactpoint database, and to taking innocent people off the DNA database. He also made a more general commitment to rolling back what he terms the "Control State".

Scrapping the scheme is certainly better than scrapping ID cards, but that could mean a number of things, depending on how much of the Labour argument that most of the scheme is necessary for biometric passports a Cameron Government ends up accepting. Clearly it wouldn't carry on trying to build the NIR, but unless it specifically moves to tackle the existing IPS database, and to control how that grows once IPS starts collecting fingerprints, cancelling the scheme wouldn't necessarily deal with the problem. The Tories do however have several senior members - notably former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis - so there seems some likelihood that they'll grasp this particular nettle early.

We're therefore left with several possible outcomes. ID cards themselves go away under a Tory Government, and there's a reasonable probability that the database and IPS (which currently still has the mission of transforming itself into the national identity bank/broker) will be brought under control. There will also be at least an intention to defang databases in general, and to take the state's nose out of everybody's business. But that's a toughie - there's a lot of dodgy databases out there, and quite a lot of Tory councils are mustard-keen on surveillance.

Under Labour (just pretend...), the database will rot if we're lucky, but the "assumption that the state sits at the centre of our lives" (as Jerry Fishenden puts it) will remain, meaning that the Government will continue to collect data from us and store and distribute it via unfit for purpose systems.

ID cards will plod on at least for a bit, and could even achieve a certain level of popularity and utility if, as we say, the Home Office worked on the pricing, presentation and marketing. But actually they'd turn into a radically different beast from the one originally specified. Some readers may start to appear at borders (automation is the IPS fix for congestion there), but there won't be readers in the High Streets and elsewhere; checks will be visual, and forgeries will be easier because nobody is ever going to check the chip in the card.

Congratulations - you're inventing 20th Century ID cards

So it's about as secure as the picture driving licence, whose database was deemed far too polluted as a source for the ID database right at the scheme's conception. The ID card is supposed to be an equivalent document to the passport, with equivalent security, but it will only be so at those borders where readers are in place, and where they're actually being used. Elsewhere, you might as well use one bought off the Internet - which you'll quite likely be able to do.

On Tuesday, Alan Johnson told Sky News that people would use ID cards instead of passports because "lots of people are going to want to keep their passports safe somewhere, as it is a very precious document". Which is a weird thing for a Home Secretary to say if the ID card really is as secure and valuable as a passport. But it's not - the Home Secretary doesn't think so, and the infrastructure to make it so won't exist, so if it does come into widespread use it'll be about as secure proof of ID as the old model ID cards issued in the rest of Europe. But as these have been used as passport substitutes for a long time and the sky hasn't fallen in, will anybody care? And does Alan Johnson? ®

Footnote

The commitment never to make ID cards compulsory for anybody but non-EEA foreigners means that a number of aspects of the ID Cards Act now look a little out of whack. In addition to it never becoming possible to insist on an ID card as proof of identity, as we noted above, the penalties for failing to renew it and for failing to notify of a change of address remain. So as we understand it, as things stand it's voluntary, but those who volunteer can never change their mind. Is that fair? It being an obvious trap will certainly interfere with uptake.

Those who don't volunteer don't need to keep IPS abreast of their address, but if the passport is made a "designated document" (an ID card equivalent - enabling legislation for this is currently going through parliament), then they do. And they've got an ID card with all the defects, but they haven't got the plastic. It's a juggernaut, and there's a lot more to removing compulsion than just saying you have.

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