Today I took part in a live webchat with James Hall, chief executive of the Identity and Passport Service, hosted by the 10 Downing Street website. Among the many issues that were discussed, it was suggested that ID cards will bring us a step closer to a surveillance society. This was Mr. Hall’s response:
“…it seems to me debatable that we are actually entering a surveillance society – and the things which are normally pointed at, like CCTV cameras, are usually being introduced under public pressure to increase personal safety. I don’t think that ID Cards will threaten personal privacy. Rather the reverse; they will likely reduce the number of times you have to reveal personal information and increase the security of your personal data. Maybe we should start arguing the case that ID Cards will reduce the threat of the Surveillance Society and help safeguard civil liberties.”
This statement is all kinds of wrong! Your right to privacy is your right to be known by only those people you trust. A National Identity Register would mean you are forced to trust the system, the operators, the Government, the technology, everything that it relies upon and everything that relies upon it. This sounds to me exactly like the kind of disproportionate and systematic privacy intrusion that would indicate a surveillance society.
Among the many other issues that were discussed, the subject of who will have access to the data on the National Identity Register was broached. Here’s another extract from the transcript:
Michael Anderson: How many people will have access to the data collected in relation to ID cards?
James replies: Michael, thanks for the question. The Identity and Passport Service today has 3,800 employees, of whom just over 3,000 are involved in authorising passports. We don’t yet know the future size of the organisation but we do not expect it to be greatly larger than the current organisation. Other organisations will be able to verify their data against the National Identity Register, but they their employees will not have access to the register itself. You might be interested to know that this can already happen with passports presented as proof of identity when opening a bank account or taking out a loan. This is proving very effective in discouraging fraud.
Noting that Mr. Hall had carefully avoided answering the question, I asked a follow-up:
Richard: Your answer to Michael Anderson doesn’t take into account the Police, Goverment departments or the security services. What is the real figure?
James replies: Richard, I take your point. The Identity Cards Act does allow information to be provided from the register to police and security services where it is necessary in the public interest for the prevention and detection of crime. The people who would have access will be IPS staff who will able to provide the information.
I then sought to find out whether a court order or warrant would be needed before access to our private data would be granted. This would seem reasonable, as oversight by the courts is a security measure against undue invasion of privacy by the state. Similar rules safeguard your home and business premises against unwarranted intrusion. However, Mr Hall declined to answer my second question.
I don’t want ID cards, but if they’re forced upon us, the least I expect is for there to be proper oversight of the system and strong safeguards against improper use of the information stored therein. If we’re to believe that the system will not be used for indiscriminite surveillance, reassurances in this area are essential. I’ll therefore be writing to James Hall to seek clarification. I’ll let you know what I find out.