Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The 'nothing to fear' question

William Heath says senior government officials are asking the question ""Why should I be worried about Govt forcing me to have a single identity, if I am not a terrorist/benefit scam artist etc?"

I generally get irritated when someone spouts the soundbite 'nothing to fear nothing to hide' because it is offered as a baseless, empty, rhetorical, debating trick. (I use the word 'debating' reluctantly there as it assumes a real engagement which doesn't exist in this case). However, William seems to think these officials genuinely want to understand the problems with the imposition of a single universal identity and " if they get an intelligent answer they'll mull it over and perhaps, probably, eventually do the right thing."

Leaving aside the problem that they've got the question exactly backwards - i.e. that the government want to impose an ID card scheme and the burden of proof on spelling out the reasons for this should be squarely on their shoulders, it's a useful exercise in and of itself for the rest of us to spell out explicitly the problems that can accrue from such a single identity.

Phil Booth of NO2ID puts it like this:

"[The simple answer is 'the presumption of innocence'? - the question presumes that ONLY terrorists or criminals would resist a Gov'?t-imposed identity. Which is THEIR line, and utterly unsupportable. It is for them to prove that I need one, not me to prove that I don'?t.]


My identity is mine, and to others my identity is ME. When any authority attempts to impose an identity on me, it has to make all sorts of gross assumptions about who I am, my relationships and how I choose to live my life. The authority'?s '?identity'? will therefore, and almost inevitably, tend to restrict me - especially as the purpose of ALL imposed Â?identitiesÂ? is control.

Why should I have to relinquish control of my life and relationships? So long as I am doing nothing wrong, I should have the right to live my life as I see fit. Authorities almost always define Â?wrongÂ? in very rigid ways and, of necessity, analyse behaviour in binary/digital terms. If something that I do confounds expected patterns but is not illegal, why should I be considered Â?suspectÂ?? If I choose to disagree with the authority and express that, should I live in fear?

The authorityÂ?s Â?identityÂ?, because I am no longer in direct control of it and may have no knowledge of how it is being (ab)used, will almost certainly expose me to danger, damage and circumstances that I might choose to avoid [your other respondents list many examples]. At the very least, I should be given the choice whether or not to expose myself to such unquantified - and individually unquantifiable - risks.

An Â?identityÂ? is far more than a simple accumulation of facts. In linking together pieces of our personal information and sharing them with others, the authority (mis)represents us for its own purposes. If it is so unwilling to take full responsibility for this that it has to try to impose its Â?identitiesÂ? on us, then we should be far more than worried. And we should damn well fight to preserve control of our real identities."

And Toby Stevens agrees

"PhilÂ?s pretty much got it there. Strong identity is the cornerstone of privacy. But a *single* identity is the most privacy-intrusive measure that I can have forced upon me short of a viewscreen in my living room.

Once I have to use a *single* identity, IÂ?m obliged to reveal exactly who I am every time I wish to interact with government, commerce and society. This facilitates massive aggregation of data and the creation of a detailed profile about me, not just by government but by any commercial organisation.

A *strong* identity, however, should permit as many pseudonymous or anonymous IDs as I choose to use. So what if I call myself Wayne Rooney, so long as my payments can be authorised or the authorities can find me if I use those multiple IDs for nefarious purposes?

We all use pseudonyms and anonymous credentials: I donÂ?t reveal my home address on my blog, or my NI number when I top up my Oyster card; I donÂ?t use the same user name and password for my Internet banking as I do for a discussion group, and I donÂ?t hand out my home phone number on my business cards.

Strong identity is the friend of privacy - itÂ?s single identity that we have to worry about."

That's a good start. I suspect government officials like solid examples to help too. The usual value of anonymity/privacy cases apply :
  • The unhappy teenager confused about their sexuality looking for information
  • The person with privately held unpopular political views who might be ostracised from the community, family or workplace (or even sacked, as has happened on countless occasions)
  • The child in a strong religious family who hides this from her classmates to avoid ridicule
  • Someone attending counselling sessions for depression
  • Someone who has a criminal record for a misdemeanor as a teenager
  • Someone trying to hide from an abusive partner
  • A witness to a serious crime
  • Someone with past health problems, which though long since recovered could interfere with their ability to get a particular job
  • Someone whose details get wrongly entered on the database as a paedophile rather than a pediatrician
  • Someone whose identity gets corrupted through errors on the database or through the sales or aggregation of data shared between government and commercial organisations
  • Someone who through a routine health check discovers they carry the defective BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes and is subsequently denied health insurance
... the list goes on and on. Maybe someone should trawl the works of John Stuart Mill, Jefferson, Madison, Macaulay, Brandeis et al and just list the salient examples on the Ideal government site?

And remember the words of Louis Brandeis: "The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding." I wonder what Brandeis would have made of George W. and Tony?

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