Leading Article: Identifying some of the advantages of a card

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The Independent Online
THERE are two main civil liberties arguments against identity cards. The first is that if they are obligatory and to be carried at all times, the police have an excuse to stop anyone they dislike the look of and demand to see the card. Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, sensibly neutralised that objection yesterday by indicating that any ID card introduced after a consultation stage would be voluntary.

The second objection is harder to answer. It is that government agencies could enter on even a voluntary card information that the bearer would not want to be there, and to which unauthorised persons or institutions - insurance companies, for example - might gain access without the bearer's knowledge.

Among the many issues that need to be aired in the 'full national debate' which the Green Paper should open are: what information should ID cards contain? Who should have access to that information, and how can that access be controlled? And should the bearer be entitled to know precisely what information is electronically stored on his or her card?

The potential benefits are numerous, and not only to officialdom and the police. Simplicity is one, as Mr Howard mentioned. A single card could replace a wallet or purse full of plastic, ranging from bank cards through driving licences to social security cards. For those without a driving licence, an ID card would provide definitive proof of identity. It might not be as easy as the Home Secretary suggested to spot under-age would-be cigarette buyers or drinkers, since teenagers would be unlikely card- carriers; but they could be asked to produce an ID card to prove their right to buy.

On balance, and given the right precautions, the potential advantages of a voluntary ID scheme outweigh the disadvantages. Debate having been opened, advocates and opponents should now slug it out.