A virtual ID might sound dystopian, but it will make everything so much easier — even taxes

The government is moving online. We shouldn't be afraid, we should be excited

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The Independent Online

You have to do some official business. How would you like to do it? You have three choices. Fill in forms in triplicate, fiddle around with the proper postage, send the forms off, then wait three weeks for the documentation? How about the second option – take a day off work, catch a train for an appointment in some giant redbrick building, stand in a queue for three hours, and fill in forms (again). Or the third? Turn on your computer, get online, tap in your personal ID and complete the task. When you want. In your pyjamas. Just before booking some cinema tickets.

This is the future, as envisioned by the government digital service (GDS). The idea is that we are all going to get a virtual ID in order to store our personal data online so better to carry out the quotidian tasks of life, such as filing tax returns and applying for driving licenses. It already happens, pretty much. I file my VAT online every quarter. Takes me about 12 minutes (my accounts aren’t very complicated). It’s about as onerous as checking my bank account, which I also do online.

Ah, but is this an ID card by the back door, people cry? Won’t this take away our privacy, our right to be under the radar? Excuse me, but which century are you living in? Now that the internet has become crucial to almost any transaction you care to mention – including application for university, paying for school dinners, or booking seats on planes, our personal tastes, our personal details, our whereabouts, indeed our very shoe size is already encrypted 10,000 times across the World Wide Web.

The plan is for all government services eventually to go online, which will be a burden for the likes of my mother (84) who doesn’t do “the InterWeb” and an issue for those yet to get online, but libraries and social services might fill that lacuna. Compared with countries such as France, where simple online banking transactions need to be prefaced by hand-signed faxes, it makes the UK look sleekly modern. Indeed, the US is fast copying the British way, even down to Keep Calm and Carry On posters which are said to be appearing on the walls of the US digital service.

 

Should we be concerned about our civil liberties? Well, the five-agency model dampens down the notion of the single database held by the government, and frankly in a world where you can take a maths degree online living in the Outer Hebrides, I think an ancient Civil Service dependent on manila envelopes and form filling is inappropriate. It would surely also make it far less easy for those hell-bent on abusing the tax or benefits system.

There’s another important issue here. It might not look like it, but such a move hands back life, in a small way, to the person living it. As long as you make the deadline, you can choose the time and the place in which to apply for your tax disc, or file your accounts. It changes the relationship with government, and the responsibility of citizens to manage our affairs. Ourselves.

Fruits of my labours in the Big Apple

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With the lactic acid still swilling around my legs after Sunday’s New York Marathon, I bring you my thoughts on such races, as they seem to bear up national stereotypes in a rather wondrous fashion. New York bills itself as the biggest, the greatest, the most epic road race of all time, ever. That it opted to start on Staten Island is an irrelevant hurdle. It needs to be the biggest. Hence it is now obliged to transport 50,000 runners at 6am out of Manhattan to an outlying suburb (I’m sorry, but it is so) from whence everyone must run.

We did so to the strains of Sinatra. It’s showbiz, but it’s world conquering showbiz. Whereas in Germany, the Berlin Marathon is so perfectly organised that at the end of the race, every one of the 40,000 runners has a massage from a physiotherapist. Two, actually. One for each leg.

By contrast Le Marathon de Paris is casual, almost an irrelevance. Locals are roadside handing out glasses of red wine. It starts and finishes early, so that the City of Light can get back to the business of selling postcards of the Tour Eiffel and being rude. It is also deeply sexist. There are no loos for women. In fact, there are no loos at all, but when has that bothered a male runner?

London? Ah, the London Marathon. Brilliantly organised, justly famous, it masks its size, co-ordination and efficiency under a 40-000 strong veil of people in fancy dress.

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