“You know my name. You people gave me the fucking number.”
Whether it’s John McVicar’s prison number, an army number, a tattoo on your forearm or a piece of plastic, there is a tendency of authority to assign some “unique ID” to their “subjects”. Sometimes “unique IDs” can be useful – they make database management more efficient – all our students have unique IDs, so do all our staff. Often times people will not know they even have a unique ID on any particular database as it may only be used internally. For example, I have several different account with my bank, each with their own identification features such as sort code, account number or VISA number, but I’ll bet the database helps keep them all together under my name by assigning me as an individual an ID that I will never see – probably even the bank staff will not see.
But none of these attempt to define who you are. Except one. The National Identity Register. Most other forms of unique ID are either entirely voluntary – you don’t need to use a firm that keeps a database, but your customer experience may be the worse for not doing so; you can choose the convenience or the privacy, say – or operate in only one aspect of your life; you may be in the army, voluntarily of course, and accept that they give you a number, but that only applies to your interactions within the military network.
While we may exist on lots of different databases dealing with many different interactions with others and have many different “unique IDs” from each of them, they are subservient to the individual. But the state proposes to create for us an entry on a database that will expand to cover so many aspects of our lives that it becomes effectively the ID database that will eventually verify our very existence.
We do not exist because the government says so but because we were born, and our continuing existence at any point in time is a function of the networks we operate in – those who can identify us best may be our family, friends, employers work-colleagues, neighbours and so on. We may even call ourselves one thing in one context, amongst our friends for example, and a different thing in a different context, our family or workplace say – and everyone within those networks will recognize us. We may even wish to do this precisely in order to keep those two “identities” apart – especially say if our work is sensitive and so on.
Or we may wish to vary our identity over time – in order perhaps to give us a “new start” after some calamitous event in our lives or just because we don’t really like the person we were before any longer. But having one database that brings all our interactions with government, and presumably in time others such as banks or landlords or travel or whatever, together throughout our lives we lose that basic right and ability – your records will be there forever.
Revealing the design of the ID Card the other day, Home Secretary and former postie (who presumably had little difficulty getting letters, and postal Giros, to people without a centralised ID) Alan Johnson, trotted out the old cliche that it will help prevent us having to carry around lots of different pieces of ID when we want to engage in a contract. But there are other ways of achieving that without the government getting involved and storing everything on a single point of failure (and multiple points of corruption) database; without transforming the relationship between state and citizen from occasional protector and safety net to the body that defines your very existence.
A nice idea I quite like is what I call “networked identity”. The network is the group of people and organizations you deal with on a day to day or even just an occasional basis. You could have a card, provided by an independent data holder – you could do it mutually as a community or commercially by a firm like Experian or Verisign – and every time someone confirms your identity you get points – it could start with single points for friends verifying who you are, through to hundreds of points perhaps when a bank confirms your identity to their satisfaction in order to open an account; you could get points for making sure you are on the electoral roll, or for voting, or each time you pass through customs and immigration.
The higher the points you have on the card, verified by digital signatures of the verifying contacts, the lower the threshold for proving your identity in future, perhaps even to the point where you could bypass airport security checks and so on. Nobody need know precisely who else has verified you, just that their credentials for verifying anyone can be recognized. Perhaps your bank’s fraud insurance might insist on biometrics, but they would not be mandatory and held by the state, just on your card maybe. Over time we would be freer because of our network of verification rather than potentially the more restricted by a state with hundreds of thousands of people able to access aspects of your data. If for some reason we wanted to make a “fresh start” just as with bankrupts now you would start again with your verification network and build up points as the new identity.
When you think about it, the state ID system is also a form of protectionism for private interests. Those companies, like banks, who deal in complex risk based transactions with you have an incentive to minimize those risks – of misidentification and so on. The ID card system saves those companies who can afford to gear up with the technology and set in place procedures to comply with access requirements set by the state and so on get what they will no doubt believe (at first at least) is more definitive identification of potential customers.
So apart from usurping the position of the state vis-a-vis the individual if that wasn’t bad enough, it’s also a great big piece of corporate welfare, and an unnecessary monopoly, paid for by us!