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Panic buying

By Dave Birch posted Feb 16 2010 at 9:00 AM

[Dave Birch] For reasons that are uninteresting to discuss, I happened to be involved in a meeting about the UK ID card scheme. Now, to be clear, I am not against ID cards, but I am against this one. I don't want it scrapped on economic grounds, I want it scrapped because it is the wrong card for the 21st century in a supposedly advanced country.

For those concerned about the implications ID cards would have on our privacy, abandoning the scheme for budgetary reasons alone is not so much winning the argument as putting it on ice.

[From ID cards: there’s more than money to lose | spiked]

One part of the conversation was what might be salvaged from the scheme given the £100 million or so that has been spent on management consultants and the contracts that have already been signed with suppliers. The assumption was, as it was put to me, that since suppliers are much smarter than the government, these contracts would cost a fortune to cancel.

Home secretary Jacqui Smith has revealed that scrapping ID cards would cost £40m in compensation for suppliers. The Tories, who have promised to stop the initiative should they win the next general election, have attacked Smith for engineering a “poison pill” defence of the government's ID card proposals.

[From Scrapping ID cards would cost £40m - 24 Mar 2009 - Computing]

So given the initial conditions, instead of just wishing away the rather pointless internal passport that has been created at vast expense, is there something else we could do with the systems in place? Let's not panic and scrap it, wasting even more public money.

Far be it from me to provide free consultancy to Her Majesty's Government, but there are at least two sensible things that could be done with the current infrastructure. One (the "Passport Plus") I'll blog about shortly, but another option to explore might be a "back to basics" re-evaluation of the entitlement card idea. Some years ago, the government put out a consultation paper on the idea of a national entitlement card that people would be required to present in order to obtain public sector services such as health, education, welfare and so on. The central driver for this is to increase the efficiency of administration while reducing fraud and at the time Consult Hyperion submitted a considered response to the consultation paper, called "A good way to enable, a questionable way to prevent" (that was some time, ago, remember, before we realised that the government doesn't pay any attention to that sort of input), that supported the concept but suggested it become a showcase for privacy-enhancing technology that was self-funded by the sale of vanity entitlement numbers (we even respectfully suggested, as I recall, that entitlement number 1 be reserved for Her Majesty the Queen).

I still think that our proposed approach has considerable merit and I note that the Australian government, having abandoned plans for a national ID card, is apparently going down this same route. Whether you agree with it politically or not, you must concede that at least this kind of card would have a specific purpose that can be articulated to the public, the lack of which has always undermined the UK scheme.

Australia plans to crack down on welfare and medical fraud cheats... the Australian Government along with the Human Services Agency will introduce a plan that will assign each of its citizens with a virtual ID card... Among many objectives the plan hopes to eliminate fraudsters of the government health system. To eliminate cheats, the new identity database will be used for detecting individuals who are cheating the welfare system or attempting to avoid child support payments.

[From SecureIDNews | Australia plan to use virtual ID cards to prevent medical fraud]

Over the current economic cycle, the efficiency of public administration will be a central to the evolution of the public sector and it may well be that it is simply impossible to cut the costs of, in this case, the delivery of welfare benefits without some form of electronic identity in place. Once it is in place, then it opens up all sorts of possibilities for remote interaction and delivery.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]


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Alan Johnson, the fifth (or is it sixth?) Home Secretary to try and force ID cards down the throats of a remarkably resistant public, has stated more than once that the cards are voluntary, and that his government is not going to make anyone get or carry one. The hope is that everyone will find the current offering so useful that over time a majority of the population will want them; and it will then be a relatively simple task to 'persuade' the recalcitrant holdouts to get one. There are two problems with this idea: the first is that there has been no rush to get them, largely because their perceived value is low, but also because of the successful negative campaigns run by No2ID. The second is that the bad guys are likely to be among the last to get cards. The Home Office's own research shows that, even following their highly optimistic assumptions on benefits, very few benefits start to accrue anywhere in the public sector until card ownership is almost universal. This means compulsion. But to make the receipt of benefits, whether they be healthcare, free school meals, supplementary benefits or getting a library card contingent on ID card ownership (whether real or virtual) would be political suicide for any party. Interestingly, in France, where ID cards are commonly demanded for all sorts of public purposes, even though there is no compulsion to have one, take up after many years is only about 80%. The present UK scheme comes with too much baggage, technical and political. Let it die and try again within something more consumer friendly in a few years. Nice idea, but much better to pay off the consultants and scrap the whole thing, also cheaper than trying to make it work for the public good, I suspect.

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