IMAGINE the scene: you are walking home one night through a strange neighbourhood when a policeman looms up and asks you for your ID. By that he means your official identity card. "Sorry, constable," you mutter, fumbling with your wallet or purse. "I’ve left it at home." Twenty minutes later, you are in the police station under arrest. It has become, you see, an offence to be without your ID card.
Far-fetched for Britain? Well, this week the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, is calling for a six-month national debate on the introduction of ID cards for every British resident. Initially, these will be disguised as social security "entitlement" cards - if you don’t have one and can’t prove who you say you are and where you live, you won’t get benefits. But don’t be fooled. When the man in charge of national security, ie the Home Secretary, calls for such "entitlement" cards, and not the Social Security minister, you know what the real game is.
Mr Blunkett first gave wind of this proposal last February, in the immediate aftermath of 11 September. Then, Home Office briefings suggested the so-called "entitlement" card would include fingerprints, digital photo, name, address and a personalised ID number. Presumably all this information would be stored on a giant computer. Initially, people would not be required to carry the card, but its production would be compulsory for employment and all dealings with the state, including accessing health services and public libraries.
All this sounds fairly innocent and cuddly, and will be presented as a tool to cut fraud and track down illegal immigrants. It could even be done without going to the Big Brother stage: granting the police full powers to demand to see your the card, or allowing all government departments to access your data file through your personalised ID number. But once Mr Blunkett has his "entitlement" card physically in place, going to the next stage is easy.
Should we worry? After all, this is not the sleepy Fifties, when we finally scrapped our wartime ID cards. Now we face rising street crime, laundered drugs money, large-scale illegal immigration, benefit fraud, and international terrorism. Is the computerised ID card not just a commonsense necessity in a globalised world with porous borders? Besides, we already have our personal data logged on dozens of different computers as we waft our credit and debit cards, or a passport with its telltale electronic strip. Why not just one card, with one number? And as for civil liberties - every high street has CCT cameras and soon every mobile phone will have a satellite chip to locate your precise whereabouts on planet Earth.
All this is very true. But there remain serious arguments against Mr Blunkett’s little plastic card. At root, the case against is that the ID card delivers less in public security than is claimed for it, but at a constitutional cost that might actually reduce police efficiency.
First, does an ID card system help fight crime? The major problem in combating crime is not lack of identification procedures, but difficulties in the gathering of evidence and the pursuit of a prosecution. Indeed, few police chiefs or criminologists have been able to advance any evidence whatever that the existence of an ID card would actually reduce the incidence of crime, or enhance the success of prosecution.
What does help is a DNA data base, where an individual’s stored genetic fingerprint can be matched with the DNA found at a crime scene. Actually, Britain already has the world’s largest criminal DNA data bank, set up in 1995. DNA samples are added from anyone arrested for an indictable offence since then. There are now over 300,000 individual DNA profiles on record. These have already been used to match some 19,000 criminals to the scene of their misdeeds. If you truly want to fight crime, the next step would not be an ID card but to put every citizen’s DNA on file. (Though that would open another can of civil liberty worms; eg insurance companies seeking knowledge of your proclivity towards certain hereditary diseases.)
A compulsory ID card system would also poison community-police relations, making it more difficult to gather evidence. Back in 1994, the then Home Secretary, Michael Howard, told the Tory party conference that he believed an ID card could provide an invaluable tool in the fight against crime. Howard’s claim received little support from the police and the Major government shelved the idea. The Association of Chief Police Officers said that while it was in favour of a voluntary ID card (which is pretty meaningless), its members were reluctant to administer a compulsory card that might damage relations with the general public.
In particular, ordinary citizens forgetting or losing their card could become a police, NHS and local authority nightmare. Virtually all countries with ID cards report that their loss or damage causes immense social problems. Up to 5 per cent of cards are lost, stolen or damaged each year, and the result can be denial of service and benefits.
What about ID or "entitlement" cards hindering illegal immigration? Certainly, if the Metropolitan police have powers to stop every olive-skinned young man in London and demand their ID, we might catch the odd illegal. But the cost in poor race relations and lost civil liberties might be more than the police would care to risk.
Nor will a card system do much to keep illegal immigrants from claiming benefits, because most who have disappeared are working in the black economy. And an ID card won’t do much to halt benefit fraud in general: 60 per cent or more of social security fraud involves the provision of false information - failing to declare income - rather than giving a fictitious identity.
Another unintended repercussion of any ID card system is that it spawns an industry making fake identities. Worse, by neatly providing a one-stop form of identity, criminals can use fake ID cards in several different ways. And don’t count on high-tech electronic cards being unforgeable. Even the highest integrity bank cards are available as blanks in some south-east Asian countries for a few pounds.
None of these criticisms of ID cards should be read as meaning we don’t need to deal with the security complexities of a more physically open world. I’d prefer to be safer - but I don’t think making folk carry an ID card will reduce my chances of being mugged, or blown up by al-Qaeda. Being old-fashioned, couldn’t we just try having more police officers, especially in ghetto areas where the youth tend to run riot at night? Or arrest known terrorists, instead of letting al-Qaeda operate out of London for a decade, as we did.
This week sees the opening of the new Steven Spielberg movie, Minority Report. This imagines David Blunkett’s fantasy world where we have given the state access to all our personal and biological data in order to make life secure. The trouble is Tom Cruise finds himself under preventative arrest before he commits a crime. You have been warned.