Identity cards: nothing to hide, nothing to fear?

Shami Chakrabarti
6 June 2005

As director of Liberty in these times of heightened fears and widespread comfort with a wide rage of voluntary and convenient identifiers, I am often asked “what is wrong with ID cards”? This is especially true of my European colleagues who campaign on human-rights issues arising from the operation of card schemes but who would not see it as a priority to campaign for their abolition.

My answer to their question is always the same – that is up to those who would alter our constitutional traditions first to explain what is so right with the card scheme. So far I have yet to receive a suitable answer from my friends and colleagues - and it is especially lacking from my own government, which seems so determined to press on with this scheme.

Also in openDemocracy on the British government’s identity-card proposals:

Sara Forsstrom, “Identity politics”

Hans Steketee, “Britain’s non-identity crisis”

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Four arguments, no solution

In recent years the British government has put forward at least four arguments in favour of ID cards, leaving us with the impression that they definitely see their introduction as a solution; all they seem unsure about is which problem they are supposed to answer.

First, the government has frequently argued that the cards will aid the war against terrorism, surely an admirable goal and one for which we should be willing to give up some of our privacy. Yet the experience of other countries suggests that identity cards are no great tool in this battle; Spain, after all, had a card scheme in place when the Madrid atrocities took place in March 2004.

Second, the government has promised that the cards would help combat benefit fraud. This is equally unconvincing; most benefit fraud occurs when people claim more than they are entitled to - not when they claim in someone else’s name.

Third, the government has more recently argued that the cards will prevent identity theft. This too fails to stand up to significant scrutiny. Much identity fraud now takes place in cyberspace, where the card will offer no protection. But if a criminal can forge your ID card in the real rather than virtual world then he will truly have struck gold, and will disappear with the basket into which you have placed all your eggs.

Fourth, the government has chosen to raise the spectre of illegal immigration as justification for its plans. The fact that a British ID card will be introduced in the name of immigration control only heightens the risk to race relations. Many continental European countries inherited ID cards from pre-war regimes. In those countries today, it is minority ethnic communities who are most often harassed to produce their cards. All of which begs the question: “who will be most often asked to produce the card? Someone who looks like the Home Secretary or someone who looks more like me?”

Too illiberal for Britain

Identity cards will not exist on their own; behind them will sit the chilling Identity Register holding rafts of sensitive information about each one of us, to be passed between a range of agencies. The scope of this database will inevitably grow over the years. As with other broad legislative powers, governments of various colours will - by accident or design – be able to use and abuse the scheme to increase the state’s power over the citizen.

This proposal will fundamentally shift the relationship between the citizen and the state. In Britain, the prevailing idea has always been that the government answers to us rather than the other way round. It is one thing to require a licence of those qualified to drive - it is quite another matter to expect every man, woman and child to hold and pay for a licence to live.

Even after 9/11, President Bush dismissed any such measure as “too illiberal for the American people”. The scheme planned in Britain would create a single and compulsory identifier; an altogether different beast which would represent a fundamental shift in my relationship with a state that lacks a written constitution. There may be an argument for making such a shift and debates like the one hosted by openDemocracy may cast such arguments into the centre of this important discussion. However it must be said that none of the current government’s arguments are anywhere near persuasive enough. Therefore I, and Liberty, will continue to campaign against this identity card scheme.

Further Links



UK Government site:

Overview on National ID cards:

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