Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/07/03/johnson_id_cards_uncompulsory/

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

Kinder, gentler, don't mention the database

By John Lettice

Posted in Government, 3rd July 2009 11:22 GMT

Analysis It's straight out of the New Labour Labs spin book. The Home Office executes a U-turn on compulsory ID cards, while the Home Secretary does the rounds of the media insisting that they were never compulsory in the first place, and that he is affirming his commitment to them by accelerating their rollout.

But there's a surprising amount to unpick from Alan Johnson's non-announcement this week, and although the actual change is small (backing off from a messy and pointless confrontation with the airline unions), the 'accelerated rollout' provides a few pointers as to where Johnson may be planning to take the project.

Sue Sample, Home Office sweetheart

Although certain attention-challenged outlets described Johnson's announcement that ID cards would not be compulsory as "a significant Government climbdown", the Home Office actually let this be known three months ago. It's also not the case, as some have reported, that Johnson announced the abandonment of the trial of ID cards for airport workers - he removed the compulsory aspect, but the trial remains in place, at least theoretically, on a voluntary basis.

Which is significant. Take him at face value when he claims to be an "instinctive" supporter of ID cards, but take into account that he's smart enough not to keep on banging his head against a brick wall (something of a first for recent Home Secretaries), and that coming on as the sensible one while getting the Labour Party off this particular toasting fork may come in handy if there's a leadership election in the next year or so.

By making the meaningless (because he can't commit future Governments) statement that ID cards will never be compulsory for UK citizens, he defuses the ID bomb to some extent, and moves the emphasis onto making them popular, useful and necessary. No, don't laugh - in some senses they could be useful and popular, and in some senses they could become necessary, the continuation of compulsion by other means. And if Johnson plays his cards right and doesn't make Smith- or Byrne-style demented claims, it needn't actually matter to him if people don't start volunteering for ID cards.

They're not his baby, and that only changes if he decides to make it change.

Ticking the boxes

The 'acceleration' of the rollout primarily involves the extension of this autumn's voluntary ID card scheme in Greater Manchester to the whole of the North West "early next year". Only a few thousand Mancunians have so far expressed an interest, and asking for £60 in exchange for little obvious benefit is a big ask. But it can be used instead of a passport for travel within Europe, and as the Home Office says, it's a form of ID that conveniently fits in your wallet or purse. It might not be anything like as solid and secure a form of ID as the Home Office first claimed it would be, but if it is defined as such by banks, shops and Government, then it's the one document box-tick that means, say, you don't get fined for employing an illegal alien.

Box ticking at retail is potentially another big market. Young people (the next phase of the voluntary rollout) already have to prove their age by various means, and supermarkets, bars and stores need to show they've taken adequate steps to make sure their customer isn't underage. The ID card, says the Home Office, is "reliable proof of age... in the fight against underage drinking and young people trying to buy knives". So, just as the card could be the de facto proof of citizenship for job hunters, it could also become the only viable proof of age document for young people.

There is a problem with that, in that nobody is allowed to demand an ID card as proof of identity until ID cards become compulsory.* So yes, where does Alan Johnson get off claiming they were never going to be compulsory when that intention is expressed in the ID Cards Act? Quite - and there are a few other things in the Act that are going to need straightening out if they'll now never be compulsory. We'll get to these, but you can see how many people might find ID cards convenient and/or necessary, and how it might turn out that only a few determined holdouts can be bothered.

So there's a market there, potentially a large one. Price point is clearly still an issue, but there are apparent advantages that the marketing people can be working with, and while overt compulsion is now off the agenda, circumstances can be engineered where it's a lot harder to, say, open a bank account, have a drink, get a job or get to your job at the airport when you don't have an ID card. Sprinkle in a few free offers and momentum could still be achieved (and incidentally, just rebranding the things as a free short-form passport handed out with the full passport would probably be quite popular).

If it weren't for the database? In common with his predecessors, Johnson puts all the focus on the cards and downplays the database. But although this is a rather different animal from the entirely new, clean database David Blunkett envisaged, it hasn't been cancelled.

So, when you apply for an ID card your data will go onto it, to be shared, lost and leaked across Government. But - between massive data leaks, anyway - that doesn't have a huge amount of traction with the general public. They'll care about being followed around (as with road-pricing), and they'll care about being taxed (ditto, or practically any other Government scheme described as "self-funding"), and they'll care about the Home Office being compulsively creepy and surveillance-happy.

But if Government contrives to lose data a little less frequently and soft-pedals the Big Brother stuff, then the public quite likely won't care about the database. The current Government probably doesn't care greatly either, for a couple of reasons. Most Ministers quite obviously don't have sufficient grasp of databases to understand the problem, and even if they did their view that their motives are pure and it's all being done for the best possible reasons blinds them to the threats.

* The Blessed Guy Herbert of No2ID points out that this is not entirely accurate:

It *can* be demanded as a condition of a public service for which you pay, while it is explicitly prohibited for obtaining benefits or free services (sop to Labour backbenchers presumably) - and that can be done by regulation s13. There are an awful lot of public services for which there are fees. ... Want to put in a planning application? Join the local authority gym? Where's your ID card?

It can also be demanded by anyone provided they offer a "reasonable" alternative. The only way you'd get to argue about what's reasonable, and to prove the demand is therefore unlawful is by seeking a declaration from the high court. Unless you are a bolshy QC you are unlikely to be prepared to do that at the drop of a hat and postpone opening that bank account or taking that job meanwhile. Cf. current demands for passports, specifically, by staff agencies, or any of the money-laundering nonsense where bank employees have no discretion over the list of acceptable items issued by head office. What's reasonable is what corporate bureaucrats, watching their own backs against the Whitehall ones say, is reasonable.

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.