30 June 2005


Paul Anderson, Tribune column, 1 July 2005

I know columnists are supposed to have trenchant opinions about everything, but I just can’t get myself worked up over identity cards. After weeks of reading all the arguments and chewing them over, I’ve come to an unpalatable conclusion: frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.

An outrageous assault on all the liberties the freeborn Englishman has held dear since Magna Carta, as the civil liberties lobby would have it? Give us a break. We’re already under potentially constant surveillance from the state and from various commercial interests whose records it can access and co-ordinate with ease — and ID cards wouldn’t make a blind bit of difference.

In the past week, I’ve filed my tax return online and been paid by an employer whose records are sent as a matter of course to the Inland Revenue and to whomsoever it is these days that deals with National Insurance and pension contributions. Direct debits have gone out of my bank account to pay my council tax, mortgage, various utility bills and trade union and Labour Party subs. I’ve used a debit card to buy groceries from Sainsbury’s, a carpet from the Co-op, rail tickets, books and CDs, several rounds of drinks and a couple of meals. (And when I ordered online at Sainsbury’s I was reminded what I bought when I shopped there in the last three months.)

I need a swipe card to get into work, though I’ve no idea whether the machine that lets me in records my arrival. The computer in the local library retains the information on my borrowings. And I’m recorded on countless closed-circuit television cameras whenever I leave the house or the office.

OK, I use a firewall on my computer at home and regularly sweep my system for spyware — but it would be a piece of cake for the state to monitor my email and web surfing. The same goes for my mobile phone usage, right down to tracking where I am whenever my phone is on. Next time I go abroad the chances are that my passport details will be logged by some official at some point on the journey. Thank the Lord I’m not a driver burdened with licence records and congestion charge fines . . .

Sometimes, it’s true, I find this all rather intrusive. For Sainsbury’s to remind me that my “usual” includes 20-odd beers and half-a-dozen Italian red wines is, well, sobering. I’m sick of junk mail and spam churned out by companies and campaigns that have my details on their databases. And in my nightmares I worry that if it came to the crunch and the BNP or Respect won state power, it would be all too easy for the bastards to track me down.

But the bastards aren’t in power, and for the most part I’m not that bothered by the fact that my movements and habits are constantly recorded and stored. It’s one of those things about modern life you put up with in return for the convenience of getting goods when you need them and avoiding queues and form-filling.

My real gripe is that the system doesn’t work properly. Three years ago I was the victim of a crude attempt at identity theft. Someone had picked up something addressed to me at a flat (in a shared block) I’d left a couple of years before, and had applied for several credit cards in my name. The credit card companies did not issue the cards and reported the attempted fraud to the police — who did nothing — and to the companies that list people’s credit ratings. They promptly put me on a blacklist. Result: an all-round pain in the butt that took the best part of two years to sort out.

A state ID card would have been a help in all that: it would have made it clear that I was not the person applying for credit cards in my name. I’d be quite happy to spend £93, or even £200, to make sure it didn’t happen again.

But I was unlucky, and no one who has not been the subject of an attempted identity sting can see the insurance value of an ID card. It just looks like a massive waste of money.

As for the other supposed benefits — security against international terrorists, benefit fraudsters, health service tourists and illegal workers — I just don’t buy them. Al-Qaida could handle ID cards, no problem. The only impact on illegal immigrants would be to depress their wages. And I don’t believe the Daily Mail on the level of health service tourism and benefit fraud.

So this is one where I cop out, lacking all conviction. ID cards are not worth a fight one way or the other. They are neither a key political priority nor the enemy of all we hold dear. The government has all sorts of other things it should be getting on with — and civil libertarians who want to pick a fight with it should be concentrating their efforts on its outrageous plans to ban smoking in pubs.

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