Friday, February 23

A man who tells lies merely hides the truth. But a man who tells half-lies has forgotten where he put it.

Apparently, everyone who signed the anti-ID card petition on the Downing Street website has received this email from Mr Tony Blair:

The petition disputes the idea that ID cards will help reduce crime or terrorism. While I certainly accept that ID cards will not prevent all terrorist outrages or crime, I believe they will make an important contribution to making our borders more secure, countering fraud, and tackling international crime and terrorism. More importantly, this is also what our security services - who have the task of protecting this country - believe.

So I would like to explain why I think it would be foolish to ignore the opportunity to use biometrics such as fingerprints to secure our identities. I would also like to discuss some of the claims about costs - particularly the way the cost of an ID card is often inflated by including in estimates the cost of a biometric passport which, it seems certain, all those who want to travel abroad will soon need.

In contrast to these exaggerated figures, the real benefits for our country and its citizens from ID cards and the National Identity Register, which will contain less information on individuals than the data collected by the average store card, should be delivered for a cost of around £3 a year over its ten-year life.

But first, it’s important to set out why we need to do more to secure our identities and how I believe ID cards will help. We live in a world in which people, money and information are more mobile than ever before. Terrorists and international criminal gangs increasingly exploit this to move undetected across borders and to disappear within countries. Terrorists routinely use multiple identities - up to 50 at a time. Indeed this is an essential part of the way they operate and is specifically taught at Al-Qaeda training camps. One in four criminals also uses a false identity. ID cards which contain biometric recognition details and which are linked to a National Identity Register will make this much more difficult.

Secure identities will also help us counter the fast-growing problem of identity fraud. This already costs £1.7 billion annually. There is no doubt that building yourself a new and false identity is all too easy at the moment. Forging an ID card and matching biometric record will be much harder.

I also believe that the National Identity Register will help police bring those guilty of serious crimes to justice. They will be able, for example, to compare the fingerprints found at the scene of some 900,000 unsolved crimes against the information held on the register. Another benefit from biometric technology will be to improve the flow of information between countries on the identity of offenders.

The National Identity Register will also help improve protection for the vulnerable, enabling more effective and quicker checks on those seeking to work, for example, with children. It should make it much more difficult, as has happened tragically in the past, for people to slip through the net.

Proper identity management and ID cards also have an important role to play in preventing illegal immigration and illegal working. The effectiveness of the new biometric technology is, in fact, already being seen. In trials using this technology on visa applications at just nine overseas posts, our officials have already uncovered 1,400 people trying illegally to get back into the UK.

Nor is Britain alone in believing that biometrics offer a massive opportunity to secure our identities. Firms across the world are already using fingerprint or iris recognition for their staff. France, Italy and Spain are among other European countries already planning to add biometrics to their ID cards. Over 50 countries across the world are developing biometric passports, and all EU countries are proposing to include fingerprint biometrics on their passports. The introduction in 2006 of British e-passports incorporating facial image biometrics has meant that British passport holders can continue to visit the United States without a visa. What the National Identity Scheme does is take this opportunity to ensure we maximise the benefits to the UK.

These then are the ways I believe ID cards can help cut crime and terrorism. I recognise that these arguments will not convince those who oppose a National Identity Scheme on civil liberty grounds. They will, I hope, be reassured by the strict safeguards now in place on the data held on the register and the right for each individual to check it. But I hope it might make those who believe ID cards will be ineffective reconsider their opposition.

If national ID cards do help us counter crime and terrorism, it is, of course, the law-abiding majority who will benefit and whose own liberties will be protected. This helps explain why, according to the recent authoritative Social Attitudes survey, the majority of people favour compulsory ID cards.

I am also convinced that there will also be other positive benefits. A national ID card system, for example, will prevent the need, as now, to take a whole range of documents to establish our identity. Over time, they will also help improve access to services.

The petition also talks about cost. It is true that individuals will have to pay a fee to meet the cost of their ID card in the same way, for example, as they now do for their passports. But I simply don’t recognise most claims of the cost of ID cards. In many cases, these estimates deliberately exaggerate the cost of ID cards by adding in the cost of biometric passports. This is both unfair and inaccurate.

As I have said, it is clear that if we want to travel abroad, we will soon have no choice but to have a biometric passport. We estimate that the cost of biometric passports will account for 70% of the cost of the combined passports/id cards. The additional cost of the ID cards is expected to be less than £30 or £3 a year for their 10-year lifespan. Our aim is to ensure we also make the most of the benefits these biometric advances bring within our borders and in our everyday lives.

Yours sincerely,

Tony Blair


As Gary says:

You know, I can’t make up my mind about this. Most of the time I think it’s not orwellian, and that the ID thing is just the latest demented product of a government in thrall to IT firms that tell it technology is a magic wand to fix all the world’s problems. Then I read a book such as Stephen Poole’s Unspeak, which does a fantastic job of covering linguistic double-speak and political slipperiness, and I start to get really scared and hide under the desk.


Quite. On the one hand, never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained by incompetence. On the other, never ascribe to incompetence what can be adequately explained by malice. I am perfectly ready to believe that the eejits in our Government genuinely don't comprehend the problems with their ID Database scheme and are creating a disaster by mistake. But there is nothing mistaken about this persistent telling of half-truths — far worse than mere lies, in my opinion. For a group supposedly obsessed with spin, they don't half do a good job of making themselves look guilty.

OK, so, one at a time, then.

they will make an important contribution to making our borders more secure


This is true. However, remember that this is a British scheme for British citizens; foreigners will not have ID cards. So the cards could conceivably make an important contribution in, for instance, preventing known British soccer hooligans from leaving the country during the World Cup. In other words, they could help make our borders more secure in the sense of keeping people in. They can make no conceivable contribution to keeping people out. We have passports for that. Blair knows full well that that's what he means, but seems happy to word it in such a way as to imply some sort of security benefit to the British.

He does it again here:

Terrorists routinely use multiple identities - up to 50 at a time. Indeed this is an essential part of the way they operate and is specifically taught at Al-Qaeda training camps. ... ID cards which contain biometric recognition details and which are linked to a National Identity Register will make this much more difficult.


British ID cards which contain biometric recognition details of British subjects and which are linked to a British National Identity Register will not be issued by the British Government to young Somali men living in Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. The British Government have announced no plans to refuse entry to the country to any foreigner not in possession of a British ID card.

Come to think of it, this does raise the interesting possibility of British citizens bypassing the requirement for an ID card simply by claiming to be foreign.

ID cards and the National Identity Register ... will contain less information on individuals than the data collected by the average store card


This is true. A store card records all your purchases; over a few years, this can easily come to thousands upon thousands of individual items, along with their prices, whether they were on special offer, the date you bought them, etc. It's a hell of a lot of information, none of which is particularly important — do any of us really care that a hacker could find out that we find two-for-one offers on pineapple juice rather tempting? The ID Database, on the other hand, will contain relatively little information: just the one DNA profile, a mere ten fingerprints, two retina scans, a single signature, one or two car license plate numbers, a cross-reference to our medical records... hardly anything, really.

the National Identity Register will help police bring those guilty of serious crimes to justice.


This is true. The National Identity Register will help the police to convict all sorts of people. No doubt some of them will be guilty of crimes, some of which might be serious.

They will be able, for example, to compare the fingerprints found at the scene of some 900,000 unsolved crimes against the information held on the register.


This is true: they will. The fact that they won't need a warrant is one of the criticisms of the Database, not a selling-point.

Another benefit from biometric technology will be to improve the flow of information between countries on the identity of offenders.


OK, that one's not true, but, handily enough, highlights a real problem. The only thing that can improve the flow of information is good communication. Biometrics might arguably improve the quality of the information, but we've seen time and time again that the flow is buggered, that the police have trouble getting simple paper rap-sheets faxed to the right force in the right country at the right time. The classic example is the late Jean Charles de Menezes. Two days after he was killed, his death was one of the most important and pressing issues facing the British Foreign Office, yet the Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary still didn't know whether he'd been in the country legally or illegally. If the authorities can't communicate extremely simple information effectively, what makes them think that more complex information will improve matters?

The effectiveness of the new biometric technology is, in fact, already being seen. In trials using this technology on visa applications at just nine overseas posts, our officials have already uncovered 1,400 people trying illegally to get back into the UK.


This is probably true. I have no reason to doubt it. Yet again, though, he's talking about foreigners — if they weren't foreigners, there'd be nothing illegal about their trying to enter the country. So this is a statement about biometric technology used on passports, not on ID cards. As far as I'm aware, no-one has handed a petition to Downing Street requesting the abolition of passports.

One might also point out that the thing about a trial is that, while it's running, it's the exception, not the rule. People caught in this trial didn't know that they were going to need fake biometrics; they were caught out by a scheme that has not yet been introduced in the UK. Once it has been introduced, we can expect criminals to routinely take measures to get around it.

Nor is Britain alone in believing that biometrics offer a massive opportunity to secure our identities. Firms across the world are already using fingerprint or iris recognition for their staff. France, Italy and Spain are among other European countries already planning to add biometrics to their ID cards. Over 50 countries across the world are developing biometric passports, and all EU countries are proposing to include fingerprint biometrics on their passports. The introduction in 2006 of British e-passports incorporating facial image biometrics has meant that British passport holders can continue to visit the United States without a visa.


This is all true. And entirely, utterly irrelevant. Not only is none of it in any way related to the matter at hand, but none of it is any way related to the sentence that ends that paragraph:

What the National Identity Scheme does is take this opportunity to ensure we maximise the benefits to the UK.


I take my hat off to whoever wrote that sentence, I really do. It looks like it means something, it sounds like it follows on properly from what precedes it, but it is in fact little more than a glorified full stop. Genius.

according to the recent authoritative Social Attitudes survey, the majority of people favour compulsory ID cards.


This is true. It is also the biggest half-truth of all, the thing that pisses me off the most about the whole debate. ID cards have, for many, many years now, been a handy Government smokescreen. Back when Howard was Home Secretary, whenever there was a dodgy bit of crap to foist on the public, they'd trot out the ID card idea again, secure in the knowledge that civil libertarians would kick up enough fuss on the news to distract attention from the crap. This had the additional benefit of making civil libertarians look like tunnel-visioned single-issue loons, since we only ever saw them on our screens denouncing this one issue, which — let's be fair — most people just don't give a damn about. Whatever the detailed political reality of life in France, most British people have been there and spent some time amongst a people who have to carry ID cards and seem, well, much the same as us, except with better cakes and bigger noses. In fact, British people are constantly emmigrating to France for the care-free lifestyle. Even I don't have much of a problem with ID cards. I'd rather not have to carry one, and I agree with the objections to them in principle, but hey, they're not particularly high up the list of threats to liberty. As Mark Steyn has pointed out, whatever the ideal, in practice, we already have all sorts of ID cards. Given that, we may as well have a minimum standard of unforgeability.

The genius of that bastard David Blunkett was that he figured out that he could use ID cards as a smokescreen to distract attention from his ID card plans.

The big problem with the Government's current plans is not that they intend to force us all to carry ID cards. That's a minor problem; in most people's minds, it's no problem at all. The big problem is the Database. If they were to scrap the cards completely but keep the Database, we would still be facing every bit as nasty a threat to our liberty. The Government know this full well — they might not think of it as a threat to liberty, but they know that the Database is the big deal, of which the cards are merely a small detail. Yet, whenever they ask the public for their opinion, they always ask them the question they know will spark little controversy in the interviewees' minds: "Are you for or against having to carry an ID card with you at all times?" They never ask them "What do you think of our taking a sample of your DNA, a scan of your retina, and your fingerprints, and keeping them all on a database so that the police can investigate you for any crime at any time without a warrant, and cross-referencing it with satellite tracking of your car, and plugging it into facial-recognition software attached to every CCTV camera in the country, and giving access to this database to every police officer and a long list of civil servants?" I wonder if that would get the same response.

A national ID card system, for example, will prevent the need, as now, to take a whole range of documents to establish our identity.


This is true. And, again, it's one of the problems with the scheme, not a plus. The fact is, someone will forge one of these things. When they do, they will need nothing else whatsoever to prove their false identity. I'm sure the likes of passport control will use a little extra diligence, but most people, thanks largely to the Government's overblown claims about how unforgeable these cards are, will accept a green light on the card-reader as absolute proof. I am willing to accept that the cards might lead to less identity fraud, but they won't wipe it out, and what identity fraud there is will be more effective and more difficult to stop.

I simply don’t recognise most claims of the cost of ID cards. In many cases, these estimates deliberately exaggerate the cost of ID cards by adding in the cost of biometric passports.


Mr Blair has spent half this missive talking about biometric passports and ID cards as if they're the same thing, happily citing the good things about biometric passports as evidence against the anti-ID-card arguments. When it comes to cost, however, he wants you to know that they are two completely separate things.

We estimate that the cost of biometric passports will account for 70% of the cost of the combined passports/id cards.


That's the cost of the combined passports and ID cards whose cost, he tells us, should not be combined.

Our aim is to ensure we also make the most of the benefits these biometric advances bring within our borders and in our everyday lives.


This is true, for a given value of "benefits". From the point of view of a British subject, the benefit of biometrics in passports is that it can help prevent illegal immigration. The key thing about illegal immigration is that it is something that only foreigners can do. Enforcing immigration law involves treating British subjects differently to foreigners: foreigners have to prove they're allowed in the country, while British subjects have a right to be here. The point of the ID card scheme is to force British subjects to prove that they're allowed in the country. Treating all British subjects as if they're suspected illegal immigrants is not of benefit to them.

It is of enormous benefit to the state, though. I think that's what Mr Blair was referring to.

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