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ID cards - nothing to hide and nothing to fear?

By Nick Ferrett - posted Thursday, 21 July 2005

The familiar refrain of those who call for a national identity card is that those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear. Really?

The new identity card about to be introduced in Britain will be heavily subsidised by the government. Even with that subsidy, citizens will have to pay more than $A200 on the British Government’s own figures. Some estimates put it at higher than $A400 - more than the weekly unemployment benefit for a single Australian.

That would be payable every time you wanted to obtain one. Say your purse was stolen, or your child followed the example of my son a year or so ago when he decided to see if the floppy drive on my computer would read a credit card. The answer is that it wouldn’t and subsequently, neither would the average credit card reader. Indeed, it is difficult to see how anything could read it - it’s still stuck in the disk drive despite attempts to remove it with pliers and other implements.


Then there are less mundane issues. For one, the centralisation of data about people means that a mistake in recording someone’s personal data is far more pervasive and destructive. Ah, you say, but we will have a fool proof computer system which prevents the chances of having that happen. The problem is that there is no such thing.

For another, there is the fact that some in bureaucracies both public and private with their eyes on the main chance are likely to abuse such information. Ah, you say, we will have proper safeguards to prevent that. The difficulty is that abuse of government information systems already goes on despite heavy sanctions. If there is a monetary reward, the sanctions will never be enough.

Even more pernicious are the water cooler dictators among their colleagues. Imagine how much easier it would have been for the Department of Immigration to deport Australian citizens if it had been able to fall back on the position that any ridgy-didge Aussie would have an ID card on her. Sound ridiculous? Well one would think that the government having the capacity to deport an Australian citizen without any sort of due process was ridiculous also, but Virginia Alvarez is not an apparition.

Then there simply the poor mugs bound by the inflexibility that is part and parcel of big organisations. You can just imagine it:

Official: “I’m sorry Mr Smith, you may well have lost an eye in a car accident since you were biometrically scanned for your ID card, but there’s really nothing I can do about paying your welfare benefit. You’ll have to call our special payments section.”

Citizen: “But I already rang them and followed the tone-dial menu through 8 stages, only to find a recorded message saying please visit our office and bring your ID card. Aren’t they going to have the same problem?”


Official: “Probably sir, but that’s something you will have to take up with them." And then the kicker. "There’s really nothing I can do.”

The argument that we can somehow make our borders more secure or that we can somehow clamp down on terrorism by issuing everyone with an ID card is ridiculous. Each of the London bombers would have had one. Would an ID card have prevented them from becoming radicalised? Would an ID card have prevented them from getting on the Tube or the number 30 bus?

Extensive debate in Britain has left the British Labour Government abandoning any pretence that it will assist in the prevention of terrorism. The argument, having seen the destruction of several justifications, rests almost entirely on prevention of identity theft. The difficulty is, it is much more feasible to comprehensively adopt another’s identity if all one has to do is change an entry in a database.

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About the Author

Nick Ferrett is a Brisbane-based Barrister.

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