Need a passport? You’re nicked for the database
For several weeks the House of Lords held out against the government’s miserable Bill to force anyone applying for a passport from late 2008 or early 2009 to have all their personal details entered on the new National Identity Database (NID) and to be issued with the ID card which will go with it. This week the Tory peers broke ranks with their LibDem and cross-bench allies and accepted what the government laughingly called a ‘compromise’: passport applicants will still have their information put on the NID, whether they like it or not, but under the ‘compromise’ they will be able to refuse to accept the accompanying ID card, until the cards too become compulsory for all in 2010. This was no compromise: it was a surrender by the Tories to yet another assault on our civil liberties, perhaps the worst case of control freakery yet. The option not to accept a card even when one’s details have gone onto the NID will be meaningless, especially as refuseniks will have to pay for a card even though not getting one. Anyway, the real issue has always been the grossly intrusive character of the database, not the comparatively harmless bit of plastic. Any old snooper or nark, if sufficiently ingenious in asserting need, will have access to our database information; we shall probably be unable in practice, despite reassuring undertakings to the contrary, to check whether the information on us is correct (which it’s most unlikely to be, on past form); every transaction involving access to the database will be permanently recorded, leaving each of us with an electronic paper-trail plotting our every movement and activity; and our ancient freedom to assume a different identity for our own protection or convenience (so long as we don’t use it for fraud or other illegal activity) will be gone for ever. Every one of us will be metaphorically hand-cuffed to a 24/7 CCTV camera transmitting every detail of our lives to Big Brother somewhere in Whitehall or Westminster. And Orwell thought he was writing satire!
It’s not, anyway, as if the government has ever been able to come up with a convincing explanation of what the database and the ID cards are expected to achieve that couldn’t be just as well (and much more cheaply) achieved by other means. Relatively little benefit fraud is based on false identity, and even if it was, serious fraudsters won’t take long to steal, otherwise acquire, or manufacture fake cards. Terrorists planning an attack will already have their cards, obtained perfectly legitimately, and their possession need not inconvenience their deadly plans in the smallest degree. Society’s congenital misfits and unfortunates will be the most likely to lose their cards, and will suffer disproportionate hardship and discrimination through not being able to produce them, thus criminalising yet more of the long suffering underclass. Witness protection, the search for peace and privacy by celebrities, a spot of adultery on a hotel week-end break, the use of maiden names by feminists and of pen-names by writers and of pseudonyms by the obsessively shy will all be made tiresomely difficult or impossible, with absolutely no countervailing benefit. Anonymity will become a pipe-dream. No-one who has committed even the most trivial offence, or been wrongly convicted of one, will ever see the stain on his record erased after having paid his debt to society: every inquisitive council bureaucrat, snooping racism inspector, petty government official, grasping tax collector, eye-brow-raising hotel receptionist, zealous copper and prying bank clerk will find a way to know about it. (The technology required to limit access on a need-to-know basis, as officially forecast, is most unlikely to be effective.) Knowledge is power, and an officious government will know much more about every one of us than it needs or ought to know. Gone will be any hope of the government minding its own business, and letting us mind ours while we get on with our lives. Orwell was overly pessimistic only in forecasting the arrival of the all-seeing totalitarian state in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. It has taken a little longer.
And by the way: the Labour Party manifesto at last year’s General Election (.pdf) promised that ID cards would initially be voluntary. The abandonment of that pledge has been a main justification for the Lords’ resistance to the government’s Bill (now an Act) under which if you applied for a passport, your information automatically and compulsorily went on the database and you got an ID card as well as a passport. Ministers have had the brass neck to defend this betrayal of the manifesto by pointing out that no-one is forced to apply for a passport: that a passport is purely an optional extra, just as the ID card and the entry in the database will be. Technically true, of course: we could all avoid the need for a passport by remaining permanently on our wind-swept little island, and that way we could keep ourselves off the database right up to 2010 when inclusion becomes compulsory for everyone, with or without a passport. Now, under this brazenly mis-named compromise, we can actually decline to have an ID card even if we need a passport before 2010 — but the info will still go on the database, and we’ll pay for the card whether or not we accept it, so there’ll be no possible advantage, and some inconvenience, in refusing it. The harm will already have been done by then, with your life story, past and future, securely tucked away on the database. By such shameless casuistry is the integrity of the manifesto technically restored. What fools they take us for!