Opinion: Why Scots should worry about their national identity scheme

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 16.45.55One of the first things Liberal Democrats in government did was to scrap the UK wide National Identity Scheme. It would have been all to easy then for NO2ID to pack up, say job done and go home. Thankfully that didn’t happen and the remnants of the campaign instead carried on keeping watchful eye on developments of what has been coined the database state. The database state is the term we now use to describe the tendency of governments to try and use computers to manage and control society.  Another attribute of this database state is function creep. This is the phenomenon whereby a system setup for one discreet purpose starts to grow out of control expanding to be used for ever more administrative functions.

A perfect illustration of function creep can be seen with the Scottish National Entitlement Card (NEC). This card started off as a replacement to pensioners bus passes in cities like Edinburgh but quickly developed into a system for accessing Council services such as libraries. Now it has about 30 uses including proof of age,  paying for school lunches cashlessly and accessing leisure services. In all but name it is a National Identity Card.

Behind the scenes the database supporting these cards grew too. Anyone registering for one gets assigned a unique citizen reference number (UCRN), this unique identifier can be used to track people across the system. Alarm over the creation of these cards and a new unique identifier led NO2ID to publish a full page open letter warning about the Scottish Identity Card Scandal. We pointed out this number could be used in the future to cross-reference and track every civic transaction you have with the state.

It now appears that civil servants in Scotland with the apparent approval of the SNP are trying to do just that. Proposals contained within a consultation entitled “proposed amendments to the National Health Service Central Register (Scotland) Regulations 2006″ would transform the Scottish NHS register (NHSCR) into a full scale population register accessible to over 120 Scottish authorities. Anyone who hasn’t yet got an entitlement card would be given one of these unique reference numbers.  Alarmingly the scheme actually goes further than the UK’s Home Office ever envisaged with their National Identity Register as it links into the Scottish NHS database, and therefore people’s health records too.

One of the stated aims of the changes proposed is that it would make it easier to ‘trace people’, the examples given are tracing missing children or ‘health tourists’. This is a giveaway as to the increased surveillance capabilities the scheme would create. If it’s able to trace children through civic transactions recorded on the system then it will be able to trace political campaigners, people’s whose library books are overdue, potentially anyone who comes to the attention of the authorities.

The consultation is alarmingly lacking in detail as to how the new database system would work, and what safeguards would be put in place.  If implemented as suggested it would almost certainly raise the possibility of a legal challenge over the breach of people’s right to privacy, and additional  compliance issues with data protection laws. At the very least such a major change in people’s relationship to the state  should be the subject of a public debate, not rushed through by officials using changes in obscure regulations. If these changes are to occur they need to be done through the use of primary legislation not a change in regulations. This seems a request it would seem hard for any reasonable Scottish Parliamentarian to deny.

The Liberal Democrats are taking a lead in opposing this system launching a  ‘No to the super ID database’ campaign.  In doing so they have listened to the warnings raised by privacy campaigners such as NO2ID and the Open Rights Group. It will be interesting now to see whether the Greens, Labour or Conservatives wake up to this issue. We have to hope too the SNP realise that civil servants are trying to build exactly the type of system in Holyrood that they opposed when it was suggested by Whitehall.

 

* Cllr James Baker – Is deputy leader of Calderdale Liberal Democrats and the campaigns manager of the non-partisan NO2ID campaign.

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15 Comments

  • Ruth Bright 13th Feb '15 - 9:41am

    James, I am so glad to see this article. I was horrified this week to learn that my daughter’s school is introducing biometrics to identify children for cashless payments. Parents were told that this is all good because they can track whether their children are buying healthy meals or not! Talk about a Big Brother sledgehammer to crack a nut. As you mention yourself, library card data is likely to follow so one day any operative who swipes the card might be able to see whether a child eats kosher food, has accumulated detentions for failing to return books etc. etc. Perhaps attendance data will follow. None of this has even gone to the governors.

  • The road to hell is paved with good intentions. As Orwell stated in his many articles from 940-1950 and especially after 1945, many intelligentsia ( who are largely left wing middle class) have totalitarian tendencies. A person who was arrested after 1945 for destroying his ID card was a liberal and it was the reason he gave for his actions.

  • Robin Bennett 13th Feb '15 - 4:12pm

    This fear of Big Brother is more appropriate to the old Soviet Union than to a nation with entrenched democracy, freedom of speech and an independent judiciary. Scotland is a small country where “freedom” is the most celebrated element of its heritage. It is without monolithic authorities (OK, Glasgow Council, perhaps – joke).

    If only, if only Lib Dems would accept the PRACTICALITY of identity cards.
    + “Proof of identity” procedures relating to money laundering legislation which bedevil our relations with banks, businesses, government and now landlords could be swept away.
    + Passports could be left at home for use only for foreign travel.
    + Officials and others could carry out quick, simple checks for so-called “illegals”.
    + Those amongst us who were not born here, or who are of minority ethnicities, would have the assurance of knowing that they can carry, on their person at all times, acceptable proof of their right to be in the UK. In some countries an identity card is, for poor immigrants, their most valued possession.
    + Creditors holding court decrees for the recovery of debts could be allowed to trace the debtors. This facility would incidentally reduce the need for discrimination against the honest poor by businesses with whom they have dealings.

    If you’re worried about forgery, any government official or police officer who is checking IDs should have the facility to check it instantly against the Scottish National Identity Register just as vehicle registrations can be checked with the DVLA. If stolen, notify the Register to have it “stopped”.

    Driving licences, which unlike the “bus pass” contain addresses and dates of birth, are more like Identity Cards. Another sinister deception? Want to outlaw them?

    If a Nazi-style party gains popular support I will eat my words.

  • James Baker 13th Feb '15 - 4:37pm

    + “Proof of identity” procedures relating to money laundering legislation which bedevil our relations with banks, businesses, government and now landlords could be swept away.” – You would have to show an ID card instead of a driving license or passport but how would that help anything?

    + Passports could be left at home for use only for foreign travel. – “They can already be left at home. How often do you actually get asked to produce some form of ID in our society? If you are younger you might need a proof of age card of which many exist that don’t track your usage and infringe your property.

    + Officials and others could carry out quick, simple checks for so-called “illegals”. – So people are going to be stopped in the street with officials asking them to prove their right to be in the UK?

    + Those amongst us who were not born here, or who are of minority ethnicities, would have the assurance of knowing that they can carry, on their person at all times, acceptable proof of their right to be in the UK. In some countries an identity card is, for poor immigrants, their most valued possession. – People only value their ID card in those countries as without the card they have no rights. The cards are used to restrict the rights of those who do not fit the criteria to have one granted. They are used to create virtual borders within countries.

    + Creditors holding court decrees for the recovery of debts could be allowed to trace the debtors. This facility would incidentally reduce the need for discrimination against the honest poor by businesses with whom they have dealings. – So you are suggesting debt collecting companies are given access to a system that can track people, yea can’t see any potential misuses or that data going on.

    Examples of Nazi Germany or the Stasi are hyperbole, but your arguing for a surveillance system to help track down not even criminal offenses but civic issues such as debt. That’s a massive power you are giving organisations to snoop on individuals lives. In such as society everything we did would be montoried not just for crime enforcement but for any misdemeanor (debt, overdue library books etc). It’s a pretty Orwellian, big brother vision of the future you are advocating.

    I’d like to think most Liberals had more faith in humanity in people to behave without constant surveillance.

  • James Baker 13th Feb '15 - 4:47pm

    Driving licences, which unlike the “bus pass” contain addresses and dates of birth, are more like Identity Cards. Another sinister deception? Want to outlaw them? – The problem is not so much having a system that contains your date of birth or address but rather a system with a unique identifier that is used to cross-reference the system with others and track you across them.

    This is the main aim of this Scottish Identity scheme. Your UCRN number would be the key to your whole life. And by “information sharing”, what you tell one public servant could be passed to anyone. That’s the risk to privacy.

  • Leekliberal 13th Feb '15 - 7:36pm

    ‘The price of freedom is eternal vigilance’ It’s originator as a quote is subject of debate but it’s truth is compelling. It is reassuring to recollect that we have been before with Labour’s idiotic £5,000,000,000 ID scheme being scrapped as one of the first acts of the coalition. When first mooted it had 70% approval in opinion polls but a spirited campaign by No2ID in which I took part, won the argument and as each justification for them by the Government was demolished, enthusiasm for the scheme plummeted. The SNP, puffed up and arrogant as they are, are riding for a fall so lets sock it to them on this issue!

  • @James Baker

    How often do you need to provide proof of ID?. In the past year, I have had to for buying and selling houses, making a large international payment, hiring a car, joining the local library service, having a document notarized, opening a new bank account, and probably other things as well if I thought about it for more than a minute.

  • Robin Bennett 14th Feb '15 - 12:38am

    The standard money laundering requirement is one doc for proof of identity and one for proof of address. The driving licence is acceptable for the former. The proof of address document must be no more than three months old and is usually a utility or council tax bill but copies, including online printouts, are not accepted. This can be a problem, depending on the institution you are dealing with. My assumption is that with a proper IC setup the proof of address would not be required.

    Passports are required for internal air travel.

    To supplement Hireton’s examples, there are dealings with share registrars, landlords, government agencies and many simple business transactions. Changing your bank is still far too difficult because of such procedures.

    People who are stopped and searched by the police would appreciate the chance to offer quick identification (unless they are on the wanted list). And the police would appreciate them too.

    Rights are indeed refused to those who do not fit the criteria for a card. I am told people in France think, rightly or wrongly, that the reason for the hundreds of migrants at Calais is that they hope to disappear into society here, which they cannot do on the continent. If regular random checks at likely locations led to there being fewer illegal immigrants, or proved that there were in fact fewer, UKIP might not have so much support.

    I am married to an immigrant, now a citizen of 37 years standing, for whom an IC in the UK, where discrimination still occurs, would be a comfort even if never asked for. That is in stark contrast to what appears to be paranoia (there, I’ve said it) about a mythical Big Brother state. James, can you paint a virtual picture of a virtual border within the UK, please? It’s difficult to visualise.

    Helping creditors and their agencies to trace people must be distinguished from harassment of debtors. For the latter, legislation to curtail it is required as codes of conduct have not done the trick.

    Vigilance against abuse, whether by government or Google, is the best policy. ICs would be useful.

  • James Baker 14th Feb '15 - 2:14am

    Robin the times you have to produce some identification are increasing because government has introduced further regulation of civic society. You now need some form of ID for checking into Hotels, Getting a Job, internal flights. It’s getting increasingly more difficult to participate in society without it.

    ID cards are touted as a solution to this increasing bureaucracy and regulation of civic society, but they are part of the problem as by making it easier to confirm ID you also make it easier to check ID. Proponents therefore argue you should need them to get hospital treatment (to stop health tourists, and to stop immigrants). Back in the 2000s the arguments were all against stopping Terrorism, it’s interesting how they are now about protecting children and preventing immigration!

    I would argue we ought to have less occasions where ID is required. For instance scrap the Immigration (Hotel Records) Order 1972 which ABTA described as “an obsolete piece of legislation originally borne out of Cold War security concerns”. Also scrap the bits in May’s immigration act which requires landlords to ‘check’ the nationality of their tenants.

    If you argue we need some form of ID card but there are ways of verifying your identity without trashing personal privacy. Schemes like the government’s identity assurance offer a potential solution, there are others that exist and they generally involve a trusted third party who knows of all your personal details verifying your identity to the person who wants to confirm your identity without passing those details on, and without tracking you on a big database. This is no different to a character reference, it’s just possible to do it in a more technical fashion.

    You propose random checks to stop immigrants. This reminds me of a story of a friend of mine who went on a foreign exchange visit. He was shocked when leaving the house he was staying in the mother of the family started to panic upon the realization she had left her ID card at home. That’s what you random checks would produce, a culture of fear and suspicion where losing or forgetting to carry your papers would illicit suspicion and investigation if you were so unlock to be picked.

    I don’t think it’s paranoid to raise concerns about having your personal data shared between 120 different organisations. It’s perfectly reasonable to want to simply go about your lawful activity without others have the right to access information about you. I tell you what is paranoid though, the idea that we need to watch people all the time just in case they are up to no good.

    ” If regular random checks at likely locations led to there being fewer illegal immigrants, or proved that there were in fact fewer, UKIP might not have so much support.”

    This reminds me of a story of a friend of mine who went to stay

  • James Baker 14th Feb '15 - 2:17am

    Sorry for the typos btw!

  • Richard Sangster 14th Feb '15 - 9:47am

    I would not have a problem with an Identity Card, which only gave identification details, however cross referencing to a variety of databases is another matter.

  • Tracing Paper 23rd Feb '15 - 12:51am

    I have dual nationality in a country that has National IDs (it used to be compulsory to carry them, backed up by force of law. Now you don’t get arrested on the spot for not having it, but that is a failure to enforce the law not a change to the law). I agree entirely that the ID does not facilitate participation in society but acts as a means to gate keep “Others” out of society. Not having that individual number bans people from opening bank accounts, registering SIM Cards (oh yes in Africa because Nigerians devised a means to bank via cellphone air time, the whole of Africa had to impose Money Laundering requirements to SIM Card purchases!), entering into credit agreements, etc etc etc. It is more difficult to comply with Company Directorship requirements, you are limited in your job searches. The list goes on. But it also makes it so much easier to defraud. Create a bogus ID and no one questions you! People don’t look beyond it. Thankfully, the only really clued up area of life is Port of Entry, so the very real concerns of people accessing information they have no business accessing doesn’t really come up, except for the fact that the people who work in Banks are generally better vetted than the people who work in Mobile Phone retail outlets, and many people discovered that they had married someone, or gotten into a lot of debt, after giving all their information to the Mobile Phone shop for a SIM Card! Increase the pool of people accessing private information and you increase the pool of people who can effect identity fraud.

  • If I remember rightly the original ID card system was not going to be mandatory to carry so what would have been the point of it anyway? We always hear of the so called benefits of one or other system touted by the government, when in fact we have perfectly good existing systems in place to check people already. Immigrants – have they got papers from home office, an NI card etc. Also bank details, driving licence, passport are all acceptable forms of ID as and when required. What really concerns me is the government’s enthusiasm towards implementing an all encompassing surveillance system, some of them quite frightening (like Ruth Bright above mentioned about biometrics for cashless payments in schools).

    Cashless payments are yet another worry because when we have no access to cold hard cash we are under total control of the banking and governmental systems and payment can be denied to us whether by accident or if we are suspected of something they could stop payments (Guilty until proven innocence as is happening all over now). At least having money we can still work with it. There is many advantages to cashless payments, quick (sometimes), convenient, more secure in that you are less likely to carry a lot of cash. There are also many advantages to carrying cash, quick and easy for small everyday payments, a feeling of “worth” and more thought to what you are spending so less likely to binge spend. But the whole point is not the pros and cons but the very fact that we should have a choice whether to use cash or card, not pigeon-holed into one system leaving us exposed to the disadvantages of that system without any choice to use the other system.

    The other really concerning thing is the government seem to be implementing these systems in Schools and extolling the virtues of mass surveillance and ‘no privacy’ as a good thing to kids. They’ll grow up thinking that having a barcode on your hand and being scanned everywhere you go is nothing to worry about. the old argument about nothing to hide nothing to worry about is an oxymoron. Well when I walk about during the day I’m on surveillance camera after camera at every turn of the corner, and I don’t like being watched by some state snooper. It makes you feel like some experiment and that you are always under suspicion, therefore you feel on edge all day.

    There needs to be a rolling back of the state machinery sooner rather than later. Also a bill that ensures that the public have a choice between the systems they use for payments. The cashless society/Surveillance express train is thundering along and it needs to be stopped in it’s track because we’ll set more and more frightening precedents. I think of what we are seeing as the boiling frog effect where if a frog is thrown in boiling water it will jump out, but put it in cold water and slowly turn the heat up it won’t notice.

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