We face a terrible threat – so storing my dull, private details is no big deal

By Alice Miles (THE TIMES, 08/11/06):

I think I must have a chip missing. An operational fault makes me quite oblivious to the dangers of government agencies (excepting the NHS) abusing my personal information to trap me or tax me or otherwise attack my basic liberties. Just as I blithely assume that no one at London Transport is remotely interested in the details of every Tube journey registered on my Oyster card, so I fail to see that the Home Secretary, no matter how nasty I might be about him, will want to access my entry on the national register and write horrid things in it.

I just don’t think I’m that important. And most of the persecuted voices howling at the thought of this Big Brother database of personal secrets hovering threateningly over the UK today seem to imagine exactly that: that they might be sufficiently significant as to be of interest to Them, and will be targeted by shadowy and malevolent agencies dedicated to the destruction of everything intrinsic to our way of life.

Now my other problem is this: that I do think I am being targeted by shadowy and malevolent agencies dedicated to the destruction of everything intrinsic to our way of life. I call them, for shorthand, al-Qaeda.

As in Dhiren Barot, just one in a lengthening line of terror suspects currently caught up in the court system. Barot, sentenced yesterday to life, with a minimum of 40 years, for planning a series of terror attacks on Britain, from Tube bombs to car bombs and dirty bombs, on banks, hotels, railway stations and even the Underground line beneath the Thames. Barot had a series of false identities and different passports that he used to travel to terrorist training camps in Pakistan and the Philippines, and he and his accomplices used a string of anonymous e-mail accounts.

What part of “threat” do these people, the ones who criticise the Government for using every weapon at its disposal against terrorism, not understand? This is a high-tech war and surely we should be using the highest tech we can muster against it? If that means ID cards, with biometric scanning to identify who is and isn’t getting on to a plane, so be it. I really don’t believe that my human right not to have my basic details — available already to people from the DVLA to the passport office, HM Revenue & Customs to Tesco to my bank — on a government database overrides the public interest.

There are a number of serious technical questions about the ID card system, as well as some financial ones, that the Government hasn’t answered sufficiently, and more fool them for rushing to introduce it before they had all their chips in order. Of course it will have to be compulsory, or it will be pointless, and ministers should never have pretended otherwise. The police will have to be allowed to compel people, after stopping and fingerprinting them, to produce the card within a given time to prove their ID. And more fool the Government for constantly changing the rationale for the introduction of the card, from fighting benefit fraud or illegal immigration or terrorism, to helping people to open bank accounts.

Ministers have also been stupid to rush to introduce so many new databases — the children’s index, the national identity register and the NHS database — all at once, leading to obvious concerns about crossovers and super-surveillance. Every time the Children’s Minister is unable to state absolutely precisely what will be on the children’s index, and who will put it there, and who take it off, and when, she damages support for the national identity register.

The Health Department’s woeful failure to ensure accountability, security and consent for its proposed NHS database is shameful and bleeds into concern over the other systems.

These are pragmatic objections, to be dealt with (or not) pragmatically. It is the ideological ones that you cannot defeat: that an ID card “changes the relationship between individual and State”, for instance. But that changes all the time: I wonder how people felt in 1837 when the State told them to begin registering births.

Then the critics, usually on the Right, say the State cannot be trusted to run anything; that there are bound to be inaccuracies on the register and that they might damage me. But the more comprehensive the register, the likelier there will be a good system of checking one’s own data and getting them changed if necessary.

How about the argument that sharing our fingerprints with the police to run past all 900,000 unsolved crimes “turns us all into suspects”? You might just as well say it confirms us all as innocents — except those whose prints happen to match. But you cannot argue with paranoics and ideologues, as Barot and his mates show daily. Nor can you argue with the sort of person whose letter to me by chance arrived yesterday as I was writing this column: “I’m not against technology. It is necessary, it is useful. But machines are threatening to control us — cameras, DNA databases, all sorts of data-holders, and info is being transferred abroad.

“People are put out of work. They are engaged in front of computers from 9 to 9. I have seen them in offices as I wander along the canal, taking in comparatively non-polluted air, the noble swans, the sedate, serene boats on the sides. Watch out! Big Brother is already here. The Thought Police are taking control.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that everyone opposed to the ID card scheme has false connections between swans and foreign databases swimming around in their heads. And I, too, hate the idea of having individuals’ DNA samples stored in case some mad scientist might in future be able to re-create us from them.

But there are some hysterical over-reactions to the thought of “My” prosaic details — name, address, date and place of birth, residential status, photo, fingerprints, signature, NI and driving licence numbers — being recorded by “Them”. We are but little people, and the world faces a big threat. And if my iris print helps the Government to combat that — well, take it.