Tuesday, December 21, 2004

UK Identity Cards Bill blog

For the aforementioned UK ID cards bill, a special blog has been set up to disseminate information, facilitate scrutiny of the bill and exchange among its opponents.

As the blog's initiators (from Spy Blog which you can find in the list of links at the right hand side of this blog) write about their motives:
“We have to do this, because our politicians in Parliament seem to be incapable of reading the detail, let alone understanding the implications of the Government's attempts at technological magic fixes to social problems.”

Monday, December 20, 2004

ID cards -- a rethink in the UK?

Will the ID card plans of the British government -- that I mentioned in an entry about two weeks ago -- go through after the resignation last week of Home Secretary David Blunkett, or will his successor Charles Clarke have to change or even abolish the bill?

As the BBC writes here, Labour Party backbenchers threaten to rebel against the bill. Clarke has already accused opponents of the bill of “liberal woolly thinking and spreading false fears” (in a piece in today's The Times) and has ruled out pausing the bill. He is though expected to lower the price for the cards for the elderly and those on lower incomes from the initial £85. Time will tell whether this will remain his only concession.

Interestingly, Conservative leader Michael Howard, who promised the government support for the ID cards bill also faces a backbench rebellion from some of his supporters who oppose the government's alleged authoritarianism in this. The Liberal Democrats -- the third major party in the British parliament -- are the only party who are united in opposition to the ID cards bill.

This demonstrates again the interesting politics that characterize privacy issues -- with a split between the more “libertarian” and the more “law enforcement” minded wings in both big parties. It is a topic which does not easily align with the normal party geography -- which is of course what makes it such interesting stuff for a political scientist...

Update: The vote in the House of Commons produced 385 to 93 in favour of giving the bill a second reading -- the rebellion, in short, did not materialize. It seems that only 19 Labour MPs, 10 Conservative MPs and all Lib-Dem MPs voted against it, in addition to about 150 MPs not turning up for the vote. Apparently the Labour government is firmly in control of its backbenchers, which shouldn't be too much of a surprise given the forthcoming election which will probably take place in early May 2005.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Civil Society, the WSIS and RFID chips

Back in Oxford for a few days, I attended a seminar at the Oxford Internet Institute today which dealt with the role of civil society in the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) -- part of a series of seminars that the OII runs with help from the ESRC. We had a very interesting discussion on the involvement of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the preparatory meetings for and the main summit of the WSIS that took place last year in Geneva. (You can find papers and presentations here and there is also a webcast available that tries to provide a summary of the results.)

What stuck in my mind were primarily two things:

  • On the one hand, how difficult it is to define “civil society” (e.g., are companies a part of it or not? What about single activists?), how unclear the basis for the legitimacy of its involvement is (even among NGOs -- with “established” NGOs challenging “specialist” NGOs about their involvement and the “specialists” conceding that it was always the same people talking to each other at the meetings), how hazy the notion of “democratisation of global governance” is and yet how much effort was put into getting involved by a host of different groups and people -- although severe cases of “post summit fatigue” were also reported and have led to withdrawal by some (which makes you wonder how the learning processes both within participants and between them can have continuity then).

  • On the other hand (and speaking as a political scientist here) I am impressed how much participation by NGOs has become the norm in international processes in the last decade or so. Compared to the exclusiveness of state diplomacy that used to dominate this sphere literally for centuries, changes here seem quite impressive to me.

Another thing that I found reading the papers (and that relates to the main subject of this blog): at the summit, participants were issued with badges that contained “radio frequency identification” (RFID) chips -- without their knowledge, and without a privacy policy being in place. When researchers questioned summit officials about the use of the chips and how long information would be stored they were given no answers. (See the story in more detail here and here).

Since these chips allow tracking people's movements in real time, two scenarios unfolded in my mind. One was that social scientists could use such information to analyse the interaction in negotiations based on who meets whom, when, and where and thus to learn a lot about the tactical behaviour of negotiation participants in international diplomacy. The other was that this information could of course also be very interesting to one or more of the negotiating parties themselves, allowing them -- through constant surveillance -- a more complete picture of what is going on and perhaps even making preemptive action possible based on that information. All that is needed are RFID readers in all doors that people can pass through in the conference area so that you always know their precise location at any point in time. Advantage host nation, I assume.

This again demonstrates the inherent ambiguity of many technologies that have privacy implications: they have dual use, as it used to be called in weapons technology.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Funny Bavaria

Today's entry has nothing to do with the grave issue of privacy and the politics thereof. I just wanted to share a discovery:

The Accounting Office of the state of Bavaria in its annual report 2004 has criticised the waste which comes from using no less than 16 different software systems for personnel administration throughout the state of Bavaria (in addition to -- hear hear! -- index card systems).

This in spite of the fact that since 1980 a unified system has been in development (by the Office of Statistics and Data Processing) which was meant to be used throughout the state. It was meant to be modern and encompassing, catering to all needs and so on. Its name is “Dialogorientiertes Personal- und Stellenverwaltungssystem” (dialogue-oriented personnel and job administration system) -- DIAPERS in short.

I hope someone gives them an English language dictionary for Christmas ;-)

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

ID cards and passports: the fight in the U.S. and the UK

One of the fascinating things about the politics of privacy is that people who worry about privacy differ so much: in the UK, for example, nobody seems much to worry about the approximately 4 million CCTV cameras which watch your every step (according to some estimates, you'll be caught no fewer than 300 times on camera when walking through London these days), but as soon as the government wants to introduce a national ID card, everybody is up in arms yelling “big brother”. That people could worry about one but not the other can be considered inconsistent, but there you go...

Some people such as Peter Hitchens (in The Spectator, 10 April 2004) have even claimed that the introduction of ID cards would be “the end of England”. Precisely that is though what the Labour government under David Blunkett has in mind (when his mind isn't occupied with other things these days, to add an inappropriate aside...).

This is not the first time the government has tried to introduce ID cards -- in 1996, for example, then Home Secretary Michael Howard (now the leader of the opposition) had to shelve his respective plans because of opposition from within his own party. No, not concerns about privacy -- the Eurosceptics were opposed that the ID card would be accepted as a passport for travel within the European Union -- horror of horrors.

The focus on what the ID card should be good for strangely changed with the times: in April 2001, for example, Tony Blair argued in favour of its introduction because it would curb fraud and reduce bureaucracy. Later it was hoped to help against underage drinking. Then it was meant to help against illegal immigration and to check the entitlements for welfare payments. And after 9/11 -- you probably guessed it -- it was advocated on the grounds that it would help to fight terrorism.

Now that the ID card legislation is before parliament (you can find the bill here -- an instructive read), protest has sprung up -- such as the group no2id with its helpful website (another interesting website on the topic is the Spy Blog).

Interestingly, the transatlantic “special relationship” seems to hold in this area as well: just as the Brits are debating the introduction of ID cards, their American cousins will be treated not to ID cards, but to fancy electronically enabled passports -- passports with RFID chips. Scheduled to be issued by the end of 2005, they will lack privacy protection, which has enraged the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU, website here, and the press release on the subject), as Wired News writes. ACLU claims that the information in the passports could be read electronically from as far away as 30 feet. This could be avoided simply by encrypting the information contained, thus preventing dangers like identity theft or the targeting of Americans travelling abroad. But, says Frank Moss, the deputy assistant secretary of state for passport services, encrypting the data might make it more difficult for other countries to read the passports: “It flies in the face of global interoperability,” as he puts it, thus coming down clearly on one side in the conflict between U.S. citizens' rights of privacy and the convenience of bureaucracies and other, more shady elements.

One should keep in mind that many countries use ID cards (11 of the 15 old EU member states have ID cards) without having turned automatically into surveillance societies or police states -- so there is no reason to become paranoid. But it will be interesting to see how the two processes will end up -- whose interests will primarily be served, which concerns will be taken into account, and which interpretation of the necessary balance between privacy and security will ultimately prevail.