Tuesday, May 30, 2006

This pernicious mix of big business and busybodies

Henry Porter was spot on as usual about the government's ID card scheme in the Observer on Sunday.

"The British state presents a menace to individual privacy in the 21st century in two ways, as the Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, demonstrates in his commendably clear report, 'What Price Privacy?'. The first is that under Tony Blair's 'transformational government', the Civil Service is moving to merge all its databases into one network with single entry points, so that someone with the right access could, for example, surf between the tax and customs database, criminal records, vehicle registrations and health and education records in their search for information on an individual.

If you add to this unified system the new National Identity Register (NIR) which, as Thomas points out, will include 'identifying information, residential status, personal reference numbers, registration and ID card history, as well as records of when, what and to whom information from the register has been provided', we will end up with an awesome apparatus of control and surveillance...

The threat of illicit use is as nothing compared to the misuse that it will offer government agencies. For one thing, there will be no knowing when and by whom your personal records are being inspected, so intrusion by the state is likely to become the norm. The other big problem is the phenomenal incompetence of the government when it comes to databases. Remember the fiascos in the Child Support Agency, the immigration service records, the old passport agency and with the benefits card. Only last week, the Criminal Records Bureau admitted that it had wrongly labelled 1,500 innocent people as pornographers, thieves and violent criminals. As a result, some failed in their job applications, which must surely mean they have a very good claim for damages against the government, based on the loss of reputation and earnings.

The Home Office refused to apologise and, instead, excused itself by saying that it had erred on the side of caution when making the checks against criminal records. That reaction is not good enough and it underlines the lack of accountability in government and the arrogance of officialdom when it comes to the reputations of ordinary people. It also raises the question of what might happen if a similar error were to infect the unified system...

I find myself wishing a hearty damnation to Courtney and her business plans, to the unified database of 'transformational government', to the incompetence and arrogance of the Home Office, to any bureaucrat who seeks to define an individual's identity with compulsory biometric measurement backed up by threats. If one thing has become clear in the last few weeks, it is that the government is not fit to be trusted with either setting up the National Identity Register or running it."

(Katherine Courtney is head of business development at the new Identity and Passport Service and was previously head of the ID card programme. She is a US citizen though the UK government have not been prepared to say whether she has taken out UK citizenship).

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