British ID card program meets resistance
cards push Britain closer to being a 'database state,' critics say.
Even a voluntary program has few takers in a nation where many already
feel under the constant eye of Big Brother.
By Henry Chu
December 21, 2009
Reporting from Manchester, England
Angela Epstein is proud to be a card-carrying Brit.
freelance writer, Epstein was first in line here a few weeks ago to
register for a voluntary national identification card -- the first such
cards to be issued in this country since World War II. The pinkish
rectangle of plastic nestles in her purse, close at hand whenever she
needs to prove who she is.
"I'm really proud to have one," said
Epstein, 42, a lifelong resident of this northern city. "It says I'm a
British citizen. . . . Anything that has that on it is a source of
pride to me."
But what gives her pride gives others pause.
skeptics, the ID cards represent one more intrusion on their privacy,
yet another government attempt to keep tabs on a citizenry that's
already among the most monitored on Earth, thanks to the countless
cameras mounted in public places.
As repositories of biometric
data and potentially other kinds of personal information, national ID
cards push Britain closer to being a "database state," critics say. It
might seem like just a big bother now, but it could easily turn into
Big Brother later. Fierce opposition has already forced the ruling
Labor Party to water down the ID plan since it was conceived several
years ago. Once envisaged as mandatory, the cards are now being issued
on a strictly voluntary basis for British citizens. They're also being
marketed as a convenient tool for consumers and travelers rather than
as the powerful weapon against illegal immigration and terrorism that
officials had touted.
But these concessions do not satisfy civil
libertarians who insist the program should be abolished. It has already
proved to be a colossal waste of time and money, they say, and still
harbors sinister potential for government nosing around in the lives of
"It changes the relationship between the state
and the individual," said James Elsdon-Baker, an activist with the
organization NO2ID. "Everyone in a free democracy has a certain degree
of their private life that they'd like to keep to themselves. It
removes that privacy."
The program is being rolled out in
stages. Chilly, wind-swept Manchester, once a symbol of the industrial
revolution that helped transform Britain from a small nation into a
mighty empire in the 19th century, was chosen as the pilot city.
Since Nov. 30, hundreds of people have shown up at a nondescript office
building in the city center to have their fingerprints taken and to
provide other personal details required to obtain a card. Officials say
that more than 1,000 cards have been issued, and appointments at the
registry office are booked through part of January.
But that's a
tiny fraction of the more than 1.5 million residents of the Greater
Manchester area. It's also a small proportion compared with the 80% of
the British population who hold passports. Convincing them that the ID
cards, which are valid as travel documents within the European Union,
aren't redundant is one of the challenges facing the government.
card is more convenient. It means if my passport's off getting a visa
or something, I still have the card with me," said Meg Hillier, the
Home Office minister in charge of the program, who was left a bit
red-faced when she forgot to bring her own card with her to a
promotional event in Liverpool last week.
changing tack since Parliament approved the program in 2006. Home
Secretary Alan Johnson, who is in charge of policing and other domestic
affairs, acknowledged in June that the government should not have
encouraged the perception of ID cards as a "panacea for terrorism."
to make the cards mandatory once enough Britons signed up voluntarily
have been dropped. Even smaller efforts at compulsory registration,
such as for airport personnel, have had to be abandoned because of
strong resistance. The only people now required to apply for the $50
cards are foreign workers from outside the EU.
Conservative Party, which is leading in the polls as Britain heads
toward a national election that must be held by June, has pledged to
scrap the ID cards if it comes to power.
The last time Britons
were forced to carry government-issued ID cards was more than half a
century ago, as the nation desperately fought the Nazi juggernaut.
of spies lurking in its midst, plus the need to identify victims killed
during German bombing raids, made some kind of mandatory document seem
like a logical, if not necessarily popular, idea.
But after the
war, people began to resent being asked by authorities to produce their
IDs. In 1952, Prime Minister Winston Churchill's government repealed
the program, leading some opponents to destroy their cards in gleeful
Aversion to identity cards has since been ingrained
in the psyche of many Britons, even though other European nations, such
as France, use them without controversy. British governments of all
political stripes have toyed with bringing them back, but were unable
to do so even in the post-9/11 world, until now.
computerization, the new cards can store more information than would
have been imagined 50 years ago, including biometric data such as
fingerprints and iris scans, passport details, and all present and past
Activists fear that as the cards become more common
and are scanned by electronic readers in shops, hospitals and other
places, people's spending habits, medical histories, religious beliefs
and even sexual practices could wind up on a government database
And with a government that has faced a string of
embarrassing scandals over confidential data being stolen or left on
trains by forgetful officials, who can be sure that such personal
information doesn't land in the wrong hands?
"It's not so much
about the card; it's about the database behind it," Elsdon-Baker said.
"We don't have faith in the government's ability to look after our data
He also cited concerns that police could use the cards to harass
government insists it will not compile the kind of intimate details
that opponents have cited. The data will not be downloadable onto disk,
access to the database will be restricted to carefully vetted
individuals and authorities will not be able to tap into it whenever
they want, Hillier said.
"Even if the police wanted some
information because they thought you or I were terrorists, they can't
just say, 'Let's go look up Meg Hillier,' " she said. "They couldn't
troll through the database."
Above all, officials and supporters of the scheme emphasize that
participation is voluntary.
Tunnicliffe decided to sign up because he splits his time between
Britain and a second home in Spain. An ID card seemed more convenient
and portable than a passport, he said.
He had no qualms about
giving his fingerprints; the government already knows plenty about him
anyway, through one bureaucratic procedure or another.
camera now," Tunnicliffe said -- accurately -- during a chat with a
reporter outside the registry office. "The days of Big Brother have
been upon us some time. We just have to live with it."
his friends, he says, regard ID cards as an invasion of privacy and
have no intention of applying for one. But Tunnicliffe, 60, grew up in
the military and got used to carrying identification.
Besides, "I'm looking forward to using my ID card as proof of age when
I go into a pub," he said with a laugh.
2009 Los Angeles Times