British ID card program meets resistance

The 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.

A 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.

For 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 ordinary people.

"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.

"A 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.

Officials acknowledge 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."

Plans 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.

The opposition 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.

Fear 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 ceremonies.

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.

With 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 addresses.

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 somewhere.

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 securely."

He also cited concerns that police could use the cards to harass minorities.

The 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.

Roger 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.

"We're on 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."

Some of 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.

Copyright 2009 Los Angeles Times