Focus: Scared new world

The security forces are being given dramatic new powers to fight terrorism, as predicted by 'The Independent on Sunday'. The Government is testing biometric ID cards and building a huge database that will reveal our lives at the touch of a button. Cole Moreton looks into the future and finds it's already here
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Indy Politics

You want to go home, but you can't. The Army has sealed off your street without warning and evacuated everyone in it. Your home is only a few yards away beyond the cordon, but there is no chance of entry: the soldier in the gas mask has orders to shoot anyone who crosses the line. He will not tell you where your family is, or why an armoured vehicle is shunting your car across the road, shattering its windows.

You want to go home, but you can't. The Army has sealed off your street without warning and evacuated everyone in it. Your home is only a few yards away beyond the cordon, but there is no chance of entry: the soldier in the gas mask has orders to shoot anyone who crosses the line. He will not tell you where your family is, or why an armoured vehicle is shunting your car across the road, shattering its windows.

You are scared but you know the law: the security forces have the right to clear any place at gunpoint without notice, seize or destroy property without compensation and arrest anyone who fails to co-operate. So it is foolish of you to lose your temper, but you do, because this is frightening - this is an infringement of your civil liberties. All you want to do is pick up some things for an overnight bag - why can't they bloody well let you in? What's the problem anyway?

The masked soldier says nothing. Arms grab you from behind and you are hauled, flailing, into the back of a van. The door slams and locks. At the police station they do not charge you. They do not have to. The cells are full. You listen to unseen fists hammering on the doors for hours before being taken away to an interview room at last.

"What is your number?" Distressed, you have forgotten. They think you are being evasive. But they already know your unique personal identity number, one of the 58 million that give the authorities instant access to the private details of every citizen. The police officer opposite has learnt your age, where you were born, what your parents did for a living, where you live, and the names of the people who live with you. He knows the job you do and how much you are paid for doing it. He knows what you owe in council tax, the child-support payments you make, and the number of times your daughter has been excluded from school. He knows you haven't got a television licence, although you've got a television. He knows you suffer from asthma and have had a hernia operation. He even knows your former partner left you because you had an affair.

All this information is available from public-sector records co-ordinated into one vast database. You are outraged that he knows so much. The officer suggests you calm down. You were arrested for a public order offence at an anti-war rally a few years ago and he has reason to believe you may cause trouble in the current state of emergency. Never mind that you were never charged. He has already received authorisation for a search of the records held on you from commercial sources. Airline records have told him you flew to New York for a week before Christmas; your spending profile says you shop at Tesco and buy a lot of ready-made vegetarian meals, and that you recently bought books by Michael Moore on Amazon. You own the greatest hits of Chumbawamba, an indication of suspicious radicalism confirmed by the websites you have visited in the past year, some of which criticise the government. Your emails are being scanned for keywords that might suggest plots against the state.

The policeman knows you called your mother from the High Street this morning. He knows the numbers of everyone you spoke to in the past year, the length of each call, and where you were at the time. You realise you are in deep when he tells you about the television camera in the newsagents. Its image-scanning software recognised your face this morning and informed the police of the presence of a person of interest (which you are thanks to that arrest). Just to be on the safe side you will be held until the current state of emergency is over or your declaration of innocence can be verified. You must account for your movements, your friendships, your spending, your whole life - and make sure the details match those on the police print-out. In the meantime, since the co-ordination of information means that any small omission - such as not having a TV licence - counts as a debt against the state, so all benefits you and your family receive will be suspended.

This is not a fantasy. It is a projection, but not very far into the future, and it relies on none of the ID cards, biometric testing, or other new security technology currently being tested. The scenario you have just read is based on plans and legislation announced by the Government last week and expected to come into operation very soon. The Civil Contingencies Bill published last Wednesday will give the police and Army sweeping powers to create exclusion zones and enforce them. The proposals have been modified after protests from civil liberties groups but still allow the security forces to make arrests on looser grounds of suspicion than usual, to ban people from travelling and stop gatherings, as well as requisitioning property and taking over stations and airports. Ministers will be able to suspend Acts of Parliament, take control of major financial institutions and declare bank holidays in the event of an emergency, defined as "an event or situation which threatens serious damage to human welfare, the environment or the security of the UK or a place in the UK". This could include war, terrorism, contamination of land with "harmful biological, chemical or radioactive matter or oil", flooding and "disruption or destruction of plant life or animal life".

Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics has just been given permission to start work on a national computerised register of the population, for which every resident of the UK will be given a personal identity code to replace the National Insurance number. Initially the records will include name, address, date and place of birth, and sex. Public services including the NHS, Passport Agency, Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority and Department for Work and Pensions will check off submissions against this number to prevent fraud. It is also expected to be used for the electoral roll, council tax and the Inland Revenue, the Child Support Agency, national insurance, health, police and legal records, and even court files from divorce proceedings.

The records the state has on you are currently held in a ramshackle way across all these departments, none of which can see what the other has unless specifically required by law. Civil liberties campaigners fear the co-ordination of all these records, and potentially instant access to them via one personal number punched into a central database, will give the state an unprecedented insight into each of our circumstances. The number is also expected to become the identifier for services such as credit cards, websites, mobile phones, and airline reservations - making it easier than ever for investigators to follow the information trail and discover your tastes, prejudices and movements.

All of which sounds like a powerful weapon in the so-called war against terrorism - so why should a law-abiding citizen worry? Primarily, says Simon Davies of Privacy International, because of the increased possibility of identity theft. "The number of circumstances where you can be wrongly identified or falsely accused increases exponentially to the amount of information they have on you," he says, fearing it will still be possible to obtain somebody else's number using forged documents.

The Treasury is suspected of promoting the personal identity number as an alternative to identity cards, which it sees as a needless waste of money. The Home Secretary, on the other hand, believes biometric data on ID cards will all but eliminate the chances of fraud - if he can ever convince Parliament to introduce them. The Passport Office has just begun a six-month trial of facial, iris and fingerprint recording and recognition, using the information technology company SchlumbergerSema to produce smart cards for 10,000 volunteers selected across the country by Mori. The tests finish in June. ID cards are unlikely to be introduced before 2007, but the US government will demand biometric information on new passports from October this year.

ID cards could eventually carry code from the national DNA database which has more than two million entries and is expanding all the time, now that the police are allowed to take samples when a person is arrested rather than charged. Predictions for the success of this dazzling science are bold, but it remains untested on such a scale. The largest iris recognition system yet in operation includes only 30,000 records. Iridian, a company that produces the software used in the Home Office trials, claims a 99.5 per cent accuracy rate, but the Pentagon apparently found it worked only 94 per cent of the time. When such percentages are applied to the millions in a national population they raise the possibility of thousands of mismatches or false trails. Should you become a victim of one of them it will be hard to convince a judiciary and society persuaded the system cannot fail.

"The Government is working from a position that says if there is enough information available and it is all linked to a unique number, that will enable you to establish your innocence more easily if questioned," says Simon Davies. "If they, say, produce evidence you were in a certain place at a certain time it is up to you to prove you were not. That is a reversal of the burden of proof."

Luckily most of us never experience anything like a police state (unless we happen to be the wrong colour in the wrong place, or our name sounds vaguely like an entry on a list of suspects as was the case for several innocent airline passengers recently). Opponents of the creeping restrictions on our freedom and privacy are worried about how easily our happy state could change. It was Lord Justice Judge, the second most senior judge in England, who responded to the first version of the Civil Contingencies Bill last year with a warning: "There are nasty people out there and there is no guarantee that because we are Great Britain none of them will ever, ever come to power."

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