The servants spy on their masters

OK in depth: Stephen Taylor describes the 'Transformational Government' agenda and the National Identity Register, which would survive the cancelling of ID cards, and should be of concern to us all
Stephen Taylor
17 February 2010
OK in depth

I used to have an annoying habit when people at parties asked my star sign: I’d say ‘Orion’. (Can you name all twelve signs?)

My prank had a point. Instead of saying “Ah, Gemini!” – yes, know all about them – you would say, “Orion? Don’t know that one.” And perhaps get to know me from observation.

Is astrology rubbish? I stopped you making false assumptions about me. Is it true? I kept important information to myself. (And my sun sign isn’t Gemini, so there.)

Small children share information without regard for consequences. They are not reckless, they are innocent; that is, ignorant. When young, we have no idea what consequences might follow. Growing up, we learn whom to trust. Who should know where I live? My bank PIN? Whom I fancy? An adult who shared this information with no thought for consequences would not be innocent, he would be wildly reckless. (And very likely sectioned.)

I didn’t do badly deflecting amateur astrologers. I’m not doing so well with Whitehall. And nor are you.

The Civil Service has a programme well out of the public gaze, known as “Transformational Government”. “Transformation” (to its initiates) aims to make administration more efficient by joining up official databases. Transformation of government, of society and of government’s role in it. The keystone of this project is the National Identity Register. The Register is to link Whitehall’s systems.

If this were my bank, I’d be cheering. I’d expect better service. And my bank is pretty good, as a bank has to be, at protecting its records.

But Whitehall is not a bank. Whitehall repeatedly demonstrates it cannot secure what it records about us. So the Commons select committee on Home Affairs recommended “a principle of data minimisation”, with records destroyed as soon as possible.

Fat chance. Transformation ignores all this. Our National Identity Scheme is unlike any other country’s. The Register starts with 50 categories of information. Just one is “the number of any designated document issued to you”. A ‘designated document’ can be any document issued by any government body. We’ll return to this.

Being on the Register gives you limited rights to read what it says about you, but obliges you to keep it up to date in every category. Repeated thousand-pound fines are specified for those who fail. The Home Office can add categories at any time. There is no procedure for getting off the Register.

The much better-known National ID Card aims to replace the passport as the “gold standard” of identification. Convenient and efficient! A single plastic card, eventually to replace your library card, bank card, Nectar card, office security pass, visitors pass in any public building, hotel room key, credit card, Oyster card… all those weaker forms of identification driven out by the “single source of truth” of the ID Card.

But imagine the consequences of a problem with it. The single key to everything in your life, controlled by civil servants. Imagine losing it. Or finding its use restricted.

The Register logs whenever your card is checked, and by whom. As the ID Card becomes the master key to your life, so the Register becomes your “life-log”, recording where you go and what you do; a surveillance record in detail never seen before. Not on suspects during a police investigation under judicial warrant, but on you, as routine, every day of your life.

Worse, it will be easy to link to the other logs you’re appearing in now, to which Whitehall is securing reader’s rights. When your car passes a camera. When you use your Oyster card. Or visit a web site. Or call or get called on your phone. Or send or receive email. Facial-recognition software may even find your appearances on street CCTV.

Servants have always spied on their masters; never before with such audacity.

Or at such eye-watering expense. Transformation probably doesn’t have a budget of its own. Though the picture is obscured by secrecy and creative accounting, including the pretence that the cost is a necessary part of “upgrading passports” or immigration controls, the creation of the ID scheme alone is to exceed £5 billion. (Or £15 billion, according to a more sceptical LSE study.) And that is without the cost of actually using it for anything.

We are funding our dossiers in high style.

At the Convention on Modern Liberty last year Sir David Varney, a chief architect of Transformation, gave a spirited defence of the project’s ambition to improve official “service delivery”. When pressed as to why so much information is held, he confessed himself at a loss. He claimed four facts would suffice for efficiency; the rest he thought was wanted for “security”.

Ministers have declared various problems for which Transformation is vital. They have had to retreat from each one. Fighting terrorism fell when former MI5 head Stella Rimington said ID Cards wouldn’t help. Illegal immigration, benefit and identity fraud: all fell on examination.

The suggestion that the Register will reduce identity fraud is especially vicious. Industry experts have shown the information on the cards is easy to read and edit. They have warned the Register is a honeypot for fraud, sacrificing our security to official convenience.

Why is it happening? The mundane truth is probably only that the technology is available, that IT companies drink at the trough, and Civil Service knighthoods are made from such projects.

Transformation is already law. A few pieces went missing in Parliament, having revealed more than MPs could stomach. A Rowntree Trust’s report last year surveyed core official databases and concluded most already operate illegally. Section 152 of last year’s Coroners and Justice Bill would have fixed that with exemption from the Data Protection Act, allowing Whitehall to pass or sell information to anyone, anywhere. It failed. But you can see how Transformation values official convenience over our privacy.

But the opposition promises to cancel ID Cards!

The devil is always in the details. An interview in Computer Weekly last April with the heads of the Identity and Passport Service made it clear ‘cancelling ID Cards’ would have little effect. Most of the infrastructure has been combined with that for passports. “It will be retained whether ID cards are cancelled or not. So if the Tories cancel ID cards, the scheme can be re-instated without too much trouble. … it is going to be increasingly difficult to separate the costs of producing passports and ID cards.” Passport prices have risen from £28 in 1999 to £72-£114 today. £200 next?

The National Identity Scheme is funded in hidden ways and designed to survive a government elected to kill it. If this is not a conspiracy, what is?

You’re still relaxed. Registering would be reckless, but ministers swear it will be voluntary.

Get real. Building the Register without getting everyone on it would be insane. It has to be comprehensive to be useful. By law Whitehall will ‘designate’ documents you won’t get without registration. Top of the list is your next passport. Ready to stop travelling?

If Whitehall also gets councils to require registration for access to services, then being on the Register will be exactly as voluntary as having somewhere to live. Councils such as Islington have declared they will not require registration unless compelled by Parliament. Camden has yet to take this stand.

The visible ID Cards are likely to be noisily ‘cancelled’ after the next election, a lightning rod for discontent. Without persistent public pressure, Transformation will survive in the passport systems, like the ground elder in my lawn. It is not enough to trim what is visible; it has to be rooted out and burned.

Even with its scope generally unknown, Transformation has been delayed by public unease. But not stopped. As matters stand, in the next decade you will, despite your reservations, put yourself on the Register. Apologists repeat the Gestapo line: The innocent have nothing to fear. But we are adults. Letting Whitehall keep a fat, insecure dossier on us is not innocent, it is wildly reckless.

This article was originally published in the Hampstead & Highgate Express

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