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.

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