Friday, 26 January 2007

The trouble with ID cards

Be afraid, be very afraid... for identity cards are coming to a United Kingdom near you!

Yes, unless something quite dramatic happens in the corridors of power, like Labour losing the next election, it seems that ID cards for every individual in this "great" nation of ours are inevitable... indeed, the first cards are due to be issued in 2008, although being a government-led, IT-based project the actual implementation date will almost certainly be somewhat later. Whatever the timescale, I have a problem with ID cards; it's not the civil liberties argument concerning Orwellian powers monitoring us and knowing our every deed (although if you want to find out more about the impact of an ID card on you I can recommend It's just that I'm concerned about the practical application of the scheme, how secure it might be (or not) and how much the whole thing is going to cost.

Here are some quotes that should concern you if you live in the UK:
"I give it six months before someone replicates it perfectly. Everything you need to clone an identity is in one place." Frank Abagnale, former identity thief and subject of the film Catch Me If You Can, on the UK ID card scheme.
"It would not be realistic to rigorously test everything before the scheme goes live." The Home Office, in a report on ID cards.
So what do these quotes suggest? Well, on their own, not too much, I admit. But if you factor in the fact that the planned use of iris recognition biometrics in the cards has been scrapped because of cost and technical uncertainties (more), it starts to look, to me at least, like a scheme that is not as secure or robust as it could be, and that further corners might be cut as project costs spiral, to the extent that the cards themselves could end up little more than a fraudster's dream. And of course, government IT projects are notoriously poorly managed, with phenomenal cost and time over-runs, the regional fire service control system project being the latest in a long line of such disastrous undertakings (more).

Now let's leave the security and cost concerns aside for a second - I know that's not easy, it's like trying to ignore a couple of elephants in the corner of your living room - but why do we even need such a card? Proof of identity, maybe? Err, my passport and/or driving licence seem to tick those boxes, thank you. Unique person-identifying reference number? Well I already have one of those too - my National Insurance number.

The more I think of it (and it's not like I lay awake at night pondering identity cards, I promise), the more this just seems like someone had an idea which, without being thought through or properly costed, got so far through the machinery of government that it cannot now be discarded without bLiar and others losing face. I can almost hear the words "it seemed a good idea at the time." And for all phoney Tony's protestations that there will no Big Brother-style "super database" containing everything the government knows about everybody (more), what else is going to underpin an ID card system if not a huge database?

So we don't need it, it's not going to be secure, it's going to cost British taxpayers (you and me!) an arm and a leg, it has Orwellian overtones and it'll be yet another card to cram in our already-overstuffed wallets (between your Tesco Clubcard and that cheaply-laminated sports club membership one). If the great and the good thought the public deserved a referendum on the subject, I would urge you to vote against it. As it is, just be prepared to grin and bear it... and don't say I didn't warn you.

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