UK Politics

Why do we need ID cards?

Alice Miles wrote in yesterday’s Times today about her blitheness towards the prospect of ID cards:

Just as I blithely assume that no one at London Transport is remotely interested in the details of every Tube journey registered on my Oyster card, so I fail to see that the Home Secretary, no matter how nasty I might be about him, will want to access my entry on the national register and write horrid things in it. I just don’t think I’m that important. And most of the persecuted voices howling at the thought of this Big Brother database of personal secrets hovering threateningly over the UK today seem to imagine exactly that: that they might be sufficiently significant as to be of interest to Them, and will be targeted by shadowy and malevolent agencies dedicated to the destruction of everything intrinsic to our way of life.

Like Alice, I’m generally in favour of blitheness. I’m also quite keen on complacency, glibness and indifference, all of which I find preferable to their opposites: zealotry, fervour and certainty. No-one ever burnt an effigy of someone they didn’t give two hoots about, other than on bonfire night (please click on link), and while our government agencies might aspire to shadowy malevolence, the sad truth is they’re more likely to be like Newcastle’s Rural Payments Agency. I have an enormous amount of faith in the cackhanded, blundering incompetence of the British state, and in the gormless, pen-chewing, internet-surfing idleness of its employees – some of whom may well be reading this right now when they should be getting on with being shadowy and malevolent; get back to work, if you are. I’m not particularly worried about the 4 million CCTV cameras in Britain either; that’s 96 million hours of footage a day to sift through, and I pity rather than fear anyone unlucky enough to be lumbered with the job of watching it.

Not that anyone’s likely to be. John-Paul Flintoff wrote in Sunday’s Times about the “faceless, nefarious collectors of data” he believes are are watching how he uses the phone and who he’s calling: “They know what websites I visit when I’m online. They are preparing to check out my medical records. By watching my shopping, they already know what I eat. They even know what I wear in bed”. Do they? Or do these faceless, nefarious employees of shadowy, malevolent agencies not actually exist, and what he’s actually talking about are countless gigabytes of data to which somebody somewhere theoretically has access but whose unimaginably huge volume means that the chances of any one individual item – such as what John-Paul Flintoff wears in bed – actually being known is infintessimally tiny? So I’m closer to Pootergeek on this than I am to the assorted looney tunes found here; I’m not unduly worried about the inexorable slide of Blair’s Britain into a cryptofascist Orwellian surveillance state, if only because that state would have to be administered by British public sector employees, and they’d be playing Solitaire or sending personal emails, waiting for 5 o’clock so they can naff of home.

Having said all of which, I don’t want an ID card. Why should I have an ID card? Why do I need an ID card? Alice Miles uses the example of Dhiren Barot to suggest that in a high-tech war “surely we should be using the highest tech we can muster against it”. Would an ID card have stopped him bombing the tube? Would ID cards have prevented the London bombs? And will any of it work? If we’re going to have surveillance state, shouldn’t we at least be able to trust it to be competently run, rather than the shambles we’re more used to?