Janet Street-Porter: ID cards are simply unacceptable

I really don't think Tony Blair understands how the cyberworld is peopled by crooks and viruses
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The Independent Online

The way that this government places its faith in technology as a way to protect us from terrorism, illegal immigrants and benefit fraud is touching - not to say naive. A Prime Minister who barely knows how to send an e-mail, who has been filmed sitting at a computer like a startled fawn, would like the whole country to roll over and agree to be fingerprinted, to have their irises scanned, and to supply all sorts of intimate personal details so that we can all be nailed down on one wonderfully simple database, ready for access by tax inspectors, the police, intelligence agencies and customs officers.

The way that this government places its faith in technology as a way to protect us from terrorism, illegal immigrants and benefit fraud is touching - not to say naive. A Prime Minister who barely knows how to send an e-mail, who has been filmed sitting at a computer like a startled fawn, would like the whole country to roll over and agree to be fingerprinted, to have their irises scanned, and to supply all sorts of intimate personal details so that we can all be nailed down on one wonderfully simple database, ready for access by tax inspectors, the police, intelligence agencies and customs officers.

Tony has signed up to the gorgeously seductive world of information technology with zero understanding of how it really works. He couldn't even do a weekly shop at Tesco online, but he would like you and me to agree to tell him our most intimate personal details and trust him not to abuse that knowledge. I really don't think the man has any understanding of how the cyber-world is peopled by crooks, viruses, junk and untruths.

Since Labour came to power in 1997, there has been a long and depressing history of government departments buying the wrong computers, getting the wrong people to install them and then wasting billions of our money sorting out the mess.

From the Child Support Agency to various benefit agencies, we've witnessed a whole series of technological cock-ups which, had they happened in a publicly owned company, would have seen the CEO fired and the board of directors answering a lot of tough questions. Instead, politicians and their minions carry on investing in technology which doesn't deliver. I'm not even going to harp on about postal voting abuses, the congestion charge mistakes and speed cameras that issue tickets erroneously.

For various reasons, probably because they never use the inter-net other than to book a holiday villa or buy a book, politicians, civil servants and policemen all persist in the assumption that creating databases and dumping loads of information into them will somehow make democracy run more smoothly. Relying on technology to create identity cards is not only an invasion of our civil liberties, but patently open to misuse and fraud.

As far as I'm concerned there is no middle ground of compromise over ID cards. The current proposals have to be scrapped because they represent an invasion of privacy, simple as that. People must have the right to withhold information about themselves if that is their will - we have a democratic right to choose whether to have passports, driving licences and also to register to vote. But Mr Blair and his ministers continually address us as if we are a bunch of irritating misfits who haven't seen the light. If we don't agree with their "initiatives", then somehow it's us, not them, who are bonkers.

From demolishing perfectly good houses in the middle of Liverpool to forcing 24-hour drinking on us when we hadn't even asked for it, time and time again Labour adopt a nauseatingly patronising attitude if there is any opposition to one of their big ideas. It's clear that Mr Clarke's Bill is another example of how the Government seems determined to control and harness every aspect of our lives, to force conformity on to ordinary citizens, to exceed their mandate and remove our fundamental human rights citing spurious reasons as justification.

Labour already have a worrying track record when it comes to the freedom of the individual - remember their plans to limit trial by jury and determination to continue to lock up "terror" suspects without trial citing the public good? Then there's their love affair with Asbos and tagging orders (with a 40 per cent failure rate).

Sometimes I think Mr Clarke won't sleep at night until every recalcitrant youth in the country has a name and number stencilled on their forearm. He clearly would like to have troublemakers in easy-to-identify bright blue boiler suits, working in chain gangs picking up chewing gum and lager cans from hedgerows.

This week's statistics show that imprisoning criminals has a zero effect on preventing them re-offending, but that doesn't stop us locking up more and more people. As our prisons reach saturation point, Mr Clarke will surely be turning Army barracks into compounds full of teenage tearaways.

No one doubts that illegal immigration is a problem bothering many voters of all political persuasions. It's also a given that benefit fraud offends all taxpayers and needs to be severely dealt with. But creating an ID card doesn't solve anything, because before you can log on, hackers will have entered the system, stolen what they need and will be issuing undetectable fake cards within a week. Illegal immigration will not drop, people will still be working in the black economy evading tax, and gangsters will still be running drugs and prostitution rings - exactly as they do in the European countries which already have ID cards. Experts admit that biometrics, the storing of genetic data, is not infallible. People can have fake fingerprints - if they can have penis extensions live on television weekly, then that's really not an issue.

The distinguished Royal Society has said that the Bill is "sleep walking into the future", and expressed concerns about the storing of information about our genetic makeup. There are no safeguards whatsoever that would not be open to abuse - for a start, the proposed ID card commissioner can be bypassed by the intelligence agencies. Information can also be given out to the police, customs, tax authorities and government departments if it is to "protect Britain's wellbeing", whatever that might be.

Many of our MP's were remarkably reluctant to reveal information about their incomes until they were forced to list it on a register. Many of them still provide minimal information about external sources of income, lucrative directorships and publishing deals. Yet you or I could argue that a full and frank rundown of MPs' personal finances makes government more transparent and gives us more confidence in our elected rulers.

Asking the public to hand intimate details of our private lives over to a bunch of politicians voted in by a minority of the population is a non-starter. We are already under constant surveillance by CCTV cameras - and that invasion of privacy was justified in the name of crime prevention. Speed cameras were justified in the name of reducing accidents. Now ID cards are supposed to help public services, stamp out terrorism and legitimise the workforce. Don't make me laugh - there's about as much chance of that as there is of Mr Blair revealing his full medical records in the name of public interest. Our Prime Minister expects a level of privacy that he wishes to deny us.

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