In the aftermath of 9-11, politicians in countries around the world dug up old proposals for the introduction of ID cards.
Previously, popular opinion in countries like Britain and Australia never swallowed the line that such a scheme is necessary for public safety. Those in favour often had to resort to promoting the supposed subsidiary benefits of the card - health records, financial details and so on - to sell it (some in the current situation still tout these fringe issues despite the fact that having a “solution” and then seeking out problems for it to solve is generally a bad idea). Despite the hard sell, in the past Britons and Australians generally felt in the balance between state power and individual liberty, this was a step too far on the state’s side.
The “War on Terror” has produced many strange political situations. In Britain, a left-wing government is now proposing this authoritarian measure: in Australia, a right-wing government is opposing it. In my opinion, the Howard Government is right, and the Blair Government is wrong. Here’s why.
There are three broad grounds for opposition to the introduction of ID cards, and a further, overarching, principle. The three grounds are utility, administrative issues and cost.
Some of the 9-11 terrorists had genuine ID cards and passports: they were travelling under their own identities. How would an ID card stop that? Spain has had ID cards for 10 years - that didn't stop the Madrid bombing in 2004.
On the other hand, why won't people be able to make false ID cards, just as with false passports and drivers licenses? The technology gap between government and organised crime is all but non-existent. Within weeks of introduction, blank or doctored versions of supposedly highly secure cards are available to criminals, which have been counterfeited or stolen from individuals or from the source of production.
In an environment in which possession of an apparently legitimate single card ID yields a false sense of security, criminals and terrorists can then move more freely and more safely with several fake identities than they ever could in a country with multiple forms of ID. Thus those that we wish the scheme to affect won’t be significantly impeded - but law-abiding people will be enormously inconvenienced.
What difference will the scheme actually make to policing, given that people won't be compelled to carry the card on their person?
While participation in the scheme will be compulsory, there is an exception in the UK’s proposed scheme and presumably would be in Australia’s too: people in the country for less than three months are not required to have one. This is logical, given the enormous and absurd bureaucracy that would choke up tourist, short-stay and in-transit visits to the country. But it means those most likely to pose a threat - those from outside - are precisely the people it explicitly exempts.
The UK police fingerprint database has 500,000 people on it. It is enormously expensive to run, and is highly complex. Only a few police stations have direct access to it, because it's so costly and sophisticated (smaller stations have to refer queries to stations large enough to have the system). Under the strain of the information it contains and the constant use by different stations, and perhaps because of mismanagement, the fingerprint database crashed in the first week of December 2004.
The new British DNA database is going to have 60 million people on it. DNA is much more complex than a fingerprint. DNA erodes, especially when taken from saliva, which is the government’s declared sample of choice.
While the Australian population is under half that of the UK, collection is equally problematic in both countries, for different reasons. The no-go areas of some cities in the UK and sheer difficulty of “pinning down” who’s who in the rabbit-warrens of the metropolis will present real trouble. In Australia, sampling even those in the capital cities and urban areas isn’t straightforward (what if people refuse?). But think of the vast rural and outback areas. This is worsened by the fact that in rural and urban areas in both countries many of the very people the governments will want to be on the register (those most likely to be dangerous in some way) are precisely those who most likely do not to want to be found.
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