Leading Article: When to accept progress . . .

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The Independent Online
TECHNOLOGY marches faster than public policy. It took decades of industrial revolution for Parliament to introduce laws improving sanitation and making life less arduous for the urban poor. The issues of the Nineties are different, but the problem is the same. One case in today's Independent concerns the dangers posed to the public by genetic engineering. Our front page yesterday identified another: the civil liberties issues raised by the introduction by stealth of 'smart' identity cards.

Of the two challenges, most people will find smart ID cards more immediately worrying. Yet a credit-card sized gadget carrying passport, driving licence, police, tax and medical records could make bureaucracy less tiresome. Immigration and check-in queues at airports would disappear, replaced by use of a simple slot. No need to ask an employer for a P45 on leaving one job, or to fill in a national insurance number on a form when starting another. Heart attack? A card-carrier collapsing in the street could be treated in the ambulance on the basis of card-borne information on blood group and allergies.

Yet such a tool would offer temptation to police officers, tax officials, immigration inspectors - and private-sector snoopers. Confidential details could be used to check credit ratings, to target junk mail, and to further the researches of inquisitive insurance companies.

Given existing abuses of credit and personal information held on computers, it is clear that the regulatory difficulties of such all-in-one cards would be immense. But they are not insuperable. The cards would make taxes better spent and benefits less subject to fraud; would cut the number of bureaucratic mistakes; and would allow individuals to devote less energy to queues, forms, regulations and formalities and more to their own lives.

To achieve these benefits while minimising the risks, governments must first think about regulating private-sector access to the information held on cards. Companies, for instance, would be allowed to look at workers' tax records but not where they took their last holiday, or how often they visit the doctor. This will require a licensing system that allows outsiders to unlock some, but not all, of the card's secrets. With official users, the job is harder. Cardholders' charters and ombudspersons could help. But the ultimate solution must lie in constitutional restraints allowing bureaucrats to examine only such information as they need.

The cards' introduction must be gradual and voluntary. Individuals who have no wish to rent cars without filling in forms, for instance, might choose not to commit their driving data to card. Most importantly, the secrets stored in a card must be open to its holder for verification. Since few people in practice have a chance to check the files held on them by credit agencies, doctors and government departments, this might turn the smart ID card into a weapon for freedom of information, not against it.

The discreet work on smart ID cards now being done by the European Union governments passes none of these tests. But the concerned citizen should not blame technology for bureaucratic sins. Better to accept progress and innovation, and ensure that it is turned to good rather than sinister use.