Saturday, April 08, 2006

Lost Identity

After lots of shuffling between the two Houses the British government has more or less got what it wanted - and what the United States government wanted it to have: (semi) compulsory ID cards for very man, woman and child. For now, of course, only those who wish to travel abroad, but soon the rest will have to follow. The government knew that the parliamentary process was only a stage show for the public, similar to the one played out when introducing an extension to time people can be held by the police for questioning without being charged. So confident was the government that in the "Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Bill" it made reference to identity cards issued under the "Identity Act 2006" although no such Act existed yet.

Being issued with an identity card is not, in itself, a major issue. What matters is its contents and how it is being used. What the government wants is lots of data about the carrier stored on a national (and probably international) database with instant access for anybody in its employment making it their business wanting to know something about you. New biometric passports and identity cards will have an electronic chip facilitating this exchange of information. And whilst a passport is designed for border crossings, the identity card is meant to become the main, if not only, way of proving you are who you are. All other ways of proving one's identity will be made increasingly difficult.

Already you can't buy a car number plate from a car retail store in the UK without identity, and whilst a photo card driving licence is accepted on its own, a paper licence - still in use by people who don't see the point of changing it for a plastic one -  is not going to be accepted even if combined with a current passport unless you also produce a recent utility bill. So a photo card driving licence is elevated to a status above a passport in order to get people used to the idea of plastic identity. And should you need to amend your driving licence by changing your address, for example, you will be forced to take a photo card whether you want it or not.

The same method will be applied to passport applications. From 2010, if you want a new passport, you will be forced to take an identity card (and pay for it), whether you like it or not. One of the ways to avoid this compulsion, and at the same time an excellent method to vote with your feet, is to apply for a new passport before then, irrespective of whether it has, or is about to, expire. In an excellent piece on "The Register" John Lettice argues exactly that point. He even points out that the government tried to remove the option of early passport renewal, probably in anticipation of such a move, but then reinstated it, since it does happen that people loose their passports or get them eaten by their dogs, as he puts it. This is one excuse, I suppose, Muslims will not easily conjure for explaining the disappearance of their identity documents.

All the same, with the disrespect the government is showing towards public opinion, the only way to stem the tide of government interference is by disrespecting its rules. Since it is now probably also a criminal offence to call for civil disobedience, then at least a "work to rule" principle should be applied. The N2ID group is doing its best to campaign against the changes, but only when people jam the system and make the introduction of ID cards costly, if not impossible, will the government juggernaut put on the brakes.

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