Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Mental Institution

Of late, the Home Office has not exactly distinguished itself as a shining beacon of governmental excellence, except, perhaps, as an example of how such a department should never, ever be run. In that respect, it's head and shoulders above the rest.

Nonetheless, it seems that Her Majesty's Government is pressing ahead with its crackpot Identity Card scheme, and, of course, the Home Office are the monkeys in charge of this particular banana plantation.

I, for one, am absolutely opposed to the concept of Identity Cards. I've heard the Government's arguments in favour of having the wretched things, and I think they're utter bunk. The scheme will be expensive to implement, more expensive to run, and completely ineffective. At least, it will be ineffective for the most commonly stated purposes of controlling immigration, crime etc. As is always the case with any legislation, only those people who have any intention of obeying the law will be inconvenienced; criminals (i.e. the people the scheme is, in part, supposed to control) will ignore it - after all, disregard for the law is what MAKES them criminals!

This being the case, it will be a very effective means of gathering shedloads of data on law abiding citizens - mostly data that no respectable government would ever want, or need, to know about non-criminals. Of course, "respectable" is not a term that could be easily applied to the Blair administration, and I very much doubt it will hold much meaning for Brown, either. Come to think about it, "non-criminal" isn't a particularly good fit, either, but I digress.

It's usually at about this point in any ID card debate that someone pops up and piously says something like, "the innocent have nothing to hide." Really? And yet, I bet these ID card enthusiasts have curtains up at their windows, AND I bet they close them at night when they turn the lights on. Why, if they have nothing to hide? The answer, of course, is privacy. As far as I can see, the highly spurious benefits of ID cards will be as nothing compared to the swingingly high price in terms of lost privacy.

Of course, this is not a new point - privacy concerns, although important, are not what worries me the most about this scheme. The trouble is that, once it is in place, there will be no going back; personal information will have been collected and recorded, and will continue to be recorded for as long as the scheme is in effect. And this data will be under the ultimate control of the Home Office, who want to expand the scheme into just about every aspect of every day life.

On the 19th June 2007, Home Office minister Liam Byrne said he wanted the ID card to become a "a great British institution", and added that there are plans afoot to "multiply the uses" of the card.

Not too long ago, the Home Office came under fire for losing track of about 1000 convicted criminals, including murderers and rapists, after they were mistakenly released. If this bungling, blundering apology for a Government department can't keep track of a few hundred convicted villains that it should - SHOULD - already have under lock and key, can they really be trusted to look after confidential information pertaining to millions of citizens? No, I don't think so, either.

Worse, if this ludicrous scheme is introduced as planned, and it is extended as Byrne and the other buffoons at the Home Office want, people will, indeed, come to rely on it. If, under those circumstances, you have an ID card saying you are a certain person, then, by God, you must BE that person, mustn't you? ID cards will not, as proclaimed, protect against identity theft - they will, once the system has been suitably compromised, make it much, much easier.

And make no mistake, the system will be compromised. No computer system is ever truly secure, no matter how hard folks try to make it bullet proof, and this system in particular will be a massively tempting target for every hacker in sight. We'll be up to our ears in dodgy people with seemingly legitimate identities in very short order, and when Joe Public figures out that the much-vaunted ID card system, that he now more or less has to rely on to do anything of any significance, is worthless, there will be chaos.

If that sounds like a far-fetched sci-fi plot, think again. We already rely, to varying degrees, on all kinds of computer systems, and barely give them a thought when they work according to plan. But when they fail, there are problems on a scale that cannot be ignored. Only yesterday, 300 United Airlines flights were either delayed or cancelled because of a two-hour computer failure. A few weeks ago, my local supermarket suffered a temporary problem with Chip and Pin - there was small-scale chaos as folks got to the checkout with baskets of goods, only to find their plastic didn't work. Within minutes the cash machine outside the store was empty, as shoppers scuttled out in search of alternative methods of payment - like good old cash!

How much greater, and more damaging, would the chaos be if it were discovered, after having built them into the fabric of society, that ID cards could not be relied upon to guarantee the identity of the bearer?

Exactly! And THAT is my biggest concern over the very concept of ID cards. Mr Byrne says he wants them to become an institution; not too long ago, "institution" was another name for a psychiatric hospital, or, to put it crudely, a loony bin. In that context, I am eager for the scheme, and those who are so eager to implement it, to be institutionalised without delay, before their ID insanity drags us into a world where privacy - and security - are a thing of the past.

Billy Seggars

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