A mistaken card of identity

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The Independent Online

First they were going to be voluntary, although it was clear that life would be pretty difficult for anyone who didn't have one. Now they're going to be compulsory but we won't have to carry them at all times, as long as we can produce them at a police station within seven days. How very reasonable and convenient it all sounds, possessing a single identity card instead of having to carry round driving licences, credit cards, library tickets, passports or whatever else we currently use to prove who we are. Oh, and they're absolutely essential to the war on terror, having proved their usefulness so magnificently in Spain and Turkey.

First they were going to be voluntary, although it was clear that life would be pretty difficult for anyone who didn't have one. Now they're going to be compulsory but we won't have to carry them at all times, as long as we can produce them at a police station within seven days. How very reasonable and convenient it all sounds, possessing a single identity card instead of having to carry round driving licences, credit cards, library tickets, passports or whatever else we currently use to prove who we are. Oh, and they're absolutely essential to the war on terror, having proved their usefulness so magnificently in Spain and Turkey.

Sorry, I made the last bit up. Ministers trying to sell the idea of ID cards, such as the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, on Tuesday's Today programme, loftily ignore any evidence that contradicts their arguments. But it is an incontestable fact that compulsory ID cards did not stop ETA blowing up hundreds of people in Spain, any more than they were able to prevent the terrible Atocha railway station bombings in March this year. Nor did they pose an obstacle to the PKK, the Kurdish terrorist organisation which carried out a ruthless bombing campaign in Turkey, or to the Islamic extremists who staged a series of murderous attacks in Istanbul this time last year.

A British friend who lives in Madrid told me last week that compulsory ID cards are a great nuisance - once you have one, everyone wants to see it all the time, even when you go shopping. When he is asked to write his ID card number next to his signature, he always makes it up; no one has ever compared it with the card, demonstrating the blind faith that people place in such systems. Supporters of David Blunkett's hi-tech (and highly expensive) ID cards will retort that their scheme is different, incorporating all sorts of biometric data - but just think what will happen if someone loses the card or it falls into the hands of a criminal gang. Such people are already ahead of the police and banks when it comes to card cloning, so does anyone seriously believe they would not manage to find ways of reading the data on an ID card?

Then there is the fact that the scheme will be administered by one of those super-efficient government computer systems which have made the Child Support Agency such a joy to deal with - or the one that crashed at the Department of Work and Pensions last week, throwing the place into chaos. I predict a future in which people deprived of their ID cards through theft, fraud or carelessness will have to spend days on the phone listening to recorded messages, while desperately trying to get through to a human being. Not that they'll have anything better to do, because anyone who loses a biometric ID card will be unable to travel abroad or do anything much at all.

None of these, though, is the principal objection to introducing ID cards in this country. Put very simply, they change the relationship between the individual and the state, making the former accountable to the latter rather than the other way round. Every police state makes this demand on its subjects, placing suspicion at the heart of a relationship that should be based on trust. My suspicion - and I do not for a moment trust what ministers say on this subject - is that the scheme proposed in last week's Queen's Speech has very little to do with either terrorism or our convenience.

It seems to me that the real reason that ministers (with some honourable exceptions, even in this supine Cabinet) want us to supply fingerprints, iris scans and the rest is because they made a mess of controlling immigration. In spite of passing one law after another, the Home Office has lost control of our borders to people-smugglers and traffickers, creating a twilight world of corruption and exploitation. To remedy this failure, ministers now expect us to surrender a cornerstone of our civil liberties. It is a dirty trick, and they should not be allowed to get away with it.

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