By Christina Zaba, the managing director of ethical media relations consultancy prone and union liaison officer for the NO2ID campaign no2id.net (THE GUARDIAN, 27/11/07):
Last week’s loss of confidential child benefit records has been a wake-up call to 25 million people about the reality of the government’s handling of our personal information. But few realise the extent of what lies ahead. The Identity Cards Act, which slipped, barely noted, on to the statute books in 2006, is the jewel in the crown of a wholesale and well-advanced government commitment to “share” data about each of us between departments on an unprecedented scale. Already some 265 government departments are data-sharing. Electronic identity management in the UK is deeply entrenched in government policy, and yet no one can guarantee that such a data-sharing system can be secure. All we can do is hand over our information, cross our fingers, and hope that it won’t happen to us.
This is the reality of “transformational government”, the brave new world of the database state announced as long ago as 2005 by Tony Blair as the 21st-century way forward for Britain. Government by technology would now “inspire” policy, Blair said. We would do it because we could. We would lead the world once more, this time electronically.
It was an idea fit for a great leader – an aim stunning in its simplicity. A benign and caring government would simply use the best technology on earth (no expense spared – currently an independently estimated £19bn for the internal Home Office cost of the ID system alone) to track us from cradle to grave. It would achieve immense efficiencies by collecting, keeping and endlessly “sharing” information. This would become law. And sure enough, much of it now is.
So many benefits. Tony Blair declared himself “delighted”. The authorities would be able to target each of us – just like Tesco does, only much better. They would remind you to get your insulin injection; suggest you took the train instead of driving; help you pay your tax properly. With ID cards in place, linked to a constantly growing personal database in the government’s hands, we would have no more secrets. But that would be fine: if you had nothing to hide, there would be nothing to fear.
The advantages would be manifold. The country would work properly. Terrorists would pack their (transparent, resealable, non-liquid-holding) bags at airports, and leave the country, stricken with fear at the government’s efficiency. Crime would wither. ID theft would be a thing of the past. There would be no more speeding. Government coffers would ring to the happy tune of millions saved in efficiency measures.
There would be no dishonest, incompetent or half-asleep staff, bored or overhelpful on a Friday afternoon, picking up the phone and kindly disclosing a password to someone in distress who said they had lost their pin number. And when all the personal records of the UK citizenship ended up on a computer in North Korea, being sold piecemeal by organised internet gangsters operating from here to Vladivostok, there would be no need to find out who made that call. What would be the point? You’d never be able to retrieve the information anyway. Too late then for hand-wringing and resignations. With information on 60 million of us leaked worldwide, the chaos would be unimaginable. It sounds extraordinary – but it could happen.
But the government refuses to listen, entranced as it is by its embarrassingly old-fashioned “vision” that technology can cure all ills – and closely advised by Intellect, the UK’s leading technology trade organisation, whose stated aim is both to “influence policy” and “improve markets” for its paying members, while offering them “exclusive relationships with government officials”.
The Home Office isn’t hearing the clamour of concerned voices in the international internet security community, who are saying one thing clearly: this is very dangerous. Putting all our private details into identifiable electronic databases that will be linked, transferable online, and visible to hundreds of thousands of government agency staff is dangerous.
Data-protection legislation won’t help when the data is gone. Biometrics won’t help, because it can only secure individual transactions. The Home Office doesn’t ask for your fingerprint in order to give your details to someone it thinks is from Revenue & Customs. Simply put, the system will create crime. It will be unworkable. And it will destroy the trust between citizen and state that has existed in this complex, ancient nation – a model of democracy, common sense and decency – for 800 years. The technology has simply not been invented that could keep an entire database state properly secure and give the government the control it aims for.
Yet the government aims to have made the systemic change irreversible by 2011. It knew very well in 2005 that the system must conflict with privacy. In the document Transformational Government – Enabled by Technology, we are told that there must be a “balance” between “maintaining the privacy of the individual” and “delivering more efficient services”. So now we know. It’s all in the balance. A pity, then, that 7.5 million parents weren’t consulted.