National identity cards a really bad IDea

The Home Secretary has had to deny reports that police will be able to insist on seeing ID cards...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The national ID card fiasco is heating up nicely again, after Jacqui Smith was forced to deny to Parliament that police will have the right to force us to show our cards at any time.

The Home Secretary was forced onto the offensive after lawyers at Liberty spotted clauses in a draft immigration bill that give state officials the power to make anyone who has ever entered the country prove their identity. In theory at least, that could apply to anyone who has ever been out of the country on business or for a holiday, hence the government’s hasty denial. ‘The intention is only to enable ID checks at the border’ she told the House. So that’s OK then. They won’t change their minds once the bill has been passed, will they?

Since Nov 25, the first national ID cards have started to be issued to UK residents who hail from outside the European Economic Area – accompanied, some of you may have noticed, by a natty advertising campaign featuring the utterly forgettable strap line: ‘Their identity, your reassurance’. And our money they're spending on this stuff, remember.

Of course, this story is only the latest in a endless cataract of disastrous ID card-related PR which started years ago and will continue ad infinitum, or at least until the powers-that-be come belatedly to their senses and can the whole sorry scheme. Here at MT we have long been vocal opponents of the pointless, impractical and hugely expensive ID card white elephant, which looked like an incredibly bad deal for the taxpayer even before we were heading into the teeth of the worst recession for decades.

Surely we can all think of a dozen more productive ways to spend a few hundred million quid? When even the giant IT firms which stand to make a fortune from the cards’ introduction don’t want to be associated with it public (and in MT’s experience not many do) you can bet that the idea’s a wrong ‘un. These are not organisations unused to a degree of public opprobium, as the bleak history of other government IT projects demonstrates.

Money aside, there are a whole host of other good reasons to dump the scheme – how about the fact that it won’t work for start? Either cards are compulsory for all – in which case a healthy black market in fake ones will rapidly emerge - or it isn’t. In which case, how is it different from driving licenses, passports, library cards and all those other forms of ID that we already possess?  And don’t get us started on the civil liberties arguments.

But easily our favourite ID card cock-up story emerged only the other day. Although the high tech cards have the holders’ full biometric details encoded on them - facial and fingerprint scans, no less – there are at present no scanners available to Identity and Passport Service officials to read this information. So in the meantime, staff are having to fall back on rather more traditional techniques. To whit – does the photo look like the person in front of you? And – best of all – does the card make the right kind of ‘noise’ when you tap it? In the absence of scanner technology, this aural test is apparently the best way to tell a fake card from a real one. You couldn’t make it up...

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