I listened to File on 4’s ‘A Question of Identity’ through headphones on my walk home last night. Since that included walking through a couple of fire engine sirens on what turned out to be the windiest route I could have chosen, some bits were certainly lost to me.
However, there was an unmistakeable feeling that this is a project doomed to cost the earth – someone actually said that in meetings with the Home Office, the government refused to give an estimate even to the nearest billion pounds. (This was in a quiet part of town: I don’t think I misheard.)
The Home Office also came across as distinctly amateurish in their attitude to the project – not fully understanding either the possibilities or the limitations of the technology they’re trying to make use of. Their plans keep changing (it’ll be a completely new database – no, it’ll be an expansion of the government’s current databases), their separate departments can’t agree on what they actually concretely want the database for, and nor have they ever provided estimates of how much they are each prepared to contribute to it.
The only thing that’s clear from the government’s side is that they really, really want to create this database, and it needs to have as much detailed personal information as possible about every single adult in the population, because it will be really, really beneficial for us all. What precisely those benefits are meant to consist of has never yet been pinned down.
(Yes, I know it was meant to be a cure-all, solving in one fell swoop every conceivable type of crime from terrorism (naturally) to illegal immigration (umm…) to ‘identity theft’ (or plain old fraud as I’ve decided to keep calling it in the interests of realism and a sense of perspective). But we’ve been here before, and unfortunately for the government, databases just don’t have the power to achieve any of these things.)
What the programme didn’t cover was any argument from the civil liberties perspective (I’ll just have to refer you back to No2ID for that). Or try this prize-winning essay in the Times if you’d prefer. But if people aren’t interested in the civil liberties principles, the next most annoying thing possible is to be forced to pay through the nose for something you don’t particularly want, won’t do an awful lot to help you, and has more than the potential to make life really rather unpleasant – and if the fear of a white elephant is enough to harden public opinion against ID cards and the identity database, that’s good enough for me.
The programme itself is available here to listen again, although I’ve no idea how long it’ll stay available. It lasts 40 min but any 10-min chunk should be enough to creep you out quite comprehensively.