"The Times" and identity cards

Yesterday’s issue of The Times contained a couple of interesting articles in favour of identity cards, a commentary by Michael Gove and a leader column. The quotations below come from the paper copy, which I bought, as I didn’t have the URLs at the time I wrote the original version of this article.

Gove article

Gove’s article is ludicrously entitled “Why David Blunkett is the real civil libertarian”, but maybe that merely shows Gove has a sense of humour. Gove starts off talking about prejudices, with his main point being that many people, understandably after the experiences of the 20th century, have a prejudice against the state exercising arbitrary authority.

He then argues that given the changed circumstances of the 21st century we may need to reexamine this prejudice where, in the west at least, the main threat to individuals comes not from state power as it did in the 20th century, but from terrorists who have the will and may get the means to carry out slaughter on a horrendous scale. He writes:

Well, the world has changed dramatically in the past three years, and my mind has changed too. I’m no longer convinced that the liberal prejudice against ID cards, or against incarceration without trial, is a wise presumption. And I’m no longer convinced that the progressive consensus which denounces David Blunkett as an illiberal populist for rethinking our civil liberties is actually all that progressive.

To take the last part of that first, I’d respond that Blunkett has not merely “rethought” civil liberites, he (and Straw before him and Howard before him) has set out to dismantle them plain and simple. A “rethinking” would not have attacked every single protection across the board. The right to a jury trial, the presumption of innocence, the right to security of property, freedom of expression, freedom of association, doctor-patient confidentiality, lawyer-client confidentiality, freedom from arbitrary surveillance, the right to protest, all of these have been sytematically eroded. Every year since 1999 (before 9/11!), the government has produced bills with swingeing attacks on civil liberties. Only a small proportion of them could possibly be justified on the grounds they may help protect us from terrorism. Even where such measures can protect us from terrorism they’ve often been applied broadly weakening protections when the authorities are investigating crime in general rather than just terrorism.

Also, at no point in his article does Gove justify his contention that civil libertarians who’ve opposed Blunkett are not “progressive”.

But Gove has a point about incarceration without trial — it can, if carefully used, help in the fight against terrorism by enabling the detention of terrorist suspects where a trial that revealed the evidence against them would compromise national security and seriously undermine the intelligence efforts needed to deal with such groups as al qaeda. And as Gove points out it is applied only to foreign residents, who cannot be deported and who are free to leave if they can find a country willing to take them. Thus the policy is inherently limited in scope, as well as having some legal oversight. However where its value in fighting terrorism is clear, I contend it is not at all clear that ID cards will have any such value. Also extending detention without trial to British citizens would remove this limit and leave everyone prey to being locked up by the state without being proven to have done anytthing wrong, at which point the terrorists will have ensured that our government has removed much of our freedom. As it is the existing law is not one we would want to have on the books permanently, only for so long as the threat from al qaeda is real.

A better solution might have been to reacquire the legal ability to deport foreign nationals to their country of origin, regardless of issues such as whether they might face the death penalty, and given that those individuals threaten national security. This was given up when we incorporated the ECHR into our laws, but we need not have incorporated it in the form which prevents this — other countries have managed to incorporate it without compromising that ability.

The State and the Individual

Regarding the point about the state no longer being the main threat individuals face in the 21st century, I’ll make several points. Firstly, to the extent this is so, it is largely due to the protections that people insisted on placing in the constitutions of western democracies after the experiences of despotism of earlier times — and the 20th century is far from the only period of history to warn us about excessive statr power and due to the cultural commitment to freedom in the west. The removal of those protections will expose people again to such dangers and may also both reflect and magnify a decline in the cultural commitment to freedom in western countries.

Secondly, even in western countries since WWII there have been times when governments have abused their powers over their citizens, or where citizens have fallen foul of the state. Think of all the miscarriages of justice, the West Midlands Serious Crime squad, the Watergate scandal, police beatings of suspects or protestors, etc. Whilst more the exception than the rule thankfully, such things do occur and demonstrate that democracy and a constitution that protects individual rights only reduce rather than eliminate the threat the state can pose to its citizens.

Thirdly, terrorists have yet to kill on a scale that states routinely manage when they go to war or decide to murder their own citizens en mass, though I suspect they would if they could and felt it would further their aims.

One might also ask what is the point of resisting being enslaved by terrorists only to be enslaved by our governments when they tear down civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism? A government that succeeds in doing that may pose a more serious and long term threat than the terrorists.

Gove further writes:

“But I am increasingly exasperated with those civil libertarians who jeer at his proposals, while refusing to recognise the problem and conspicuously failing to offer any alternative.”

The problem Gove is forgetting here is that Blunkett has been attacking civil liberties so outrageously and relentlessly that no one trusts him, and the civil libertarians are continuously on the defensive against this that and the other attack Blunkett proposes. There is barely time to catch breath and take stock of one policy that attacks if not removes a civil liberty, before Blunkett throws up another, if not 10 more.

But Gove has a point with this comment: civil libertarians do need to say how they would deal with the terrorist threat if they’re to oppose Blunketts proposals more effectively than they’ve managed hitherto. It is time to go on the offensive, to point out the shortcomings of Blunkett’s proposals when considered purely as means of dealing with terrorism, to put forward alternatives that preserve civil liberties and, yes where necessary, acknowledge that some proposals from Blunkett may actually help in fighting terrorism at the expense of erosions of civil liberties and there may need to be concessions. Unfortunately Blunkett’s all-out assault on civil liberties has led to a situation where civil libertarians have been reacting to him, and grown to mistrust him (for good reasons), giving an appearance of knee-jerk opposition rather than trying to set an agenda where civil liberties can be discussed more calmly and are more likely to be preserved whilst dealing with the threat from terrorism. IMHO Blunkett has exploited the situation to destroy civil liberties, not to “rethink” or try to preserve them.

Gove and ID cards

And so to Gove on ID cards:

An ID card system will make it easier to identify those at liberty in this country who are here illegally. It would make it easier to deport those who have broken the law, easier to police access to services funded by the taxpayer and by showing that we could defend our borders, easier to defend the principle of managed migration.

Checking abuse of the asylum system could also help to choke off a route for terrorist activity. Past supporters of terrorism have chosen to claim asylum here, then disappeared from scrutiny the better to further their goals. Allowing the police to request ID papers would not , of course, stop terrorist activity but it could play a significant part in frustrating it.

If I believed ID cards could achieve all this, I might support ID cards myself or at least grant they could help and thus concede a need to balance the dangers of ID cards against such tangible benefits. But it is all mere assertion by Gove. He offers neither evidence nor argument to back up these claims. And I’ve yet to see any such evidence or argument offered by any other proponent of ID cards whether it’s the government, or columnists in any of our media, or even posters to uk.politics.misc.

Moreover, there is considerable evidence to suggest they will not make the differences made above. Most of the EU have national ID cards, yet they all suffer from the same problems with illegal immigration, crime and even terrorism (Spain’s problems with terrorism occur despite the presence of a compulsory ID card) as we do, as this report from Privacy International makes clear.

Surely any civil libertarian must demand that a weakening of civil liberties has demonstratable tangible benefits before conceding ground and allowing the protections of the citizen from arbitrary state power to be eroded?

Sadly, Blunkett has steam-rollered many of his proposals through in the face of objections and without explaining what the benefits are and how the proposals will ahcieve the benefits claimed. That is why it is ludicrous to try and paint Blunkett as “the real civil libertarian”.

Leader column

Finally the leader column in the same issue, cautiously supports the experiments with ID cards and attacks some of the arguments raised against them. E.g.

Britain unusually has not issued any [ID cards] since wartime documentation — a point of pride for some citizens who believe that they have the freedom to choose the information they share with the state.

To worry about losing this is understandable. Yet the belief is quaintly anachronistic It fails to recognise the ways in which the world has already changed as computerisation diminishes privacy. Any individual who pays for hhis shopping with a credit card or makes phone calls from a mobile leaves detailed records of his life. The introduction of an ID card would make it easier for officials to join the dots of this digital information — it should also mean that opening a bank account or any other official transaction becomes simpler.

Firstly, there is a difference between leaving information with private organisations, in voluntary transactions that give us clear benefit and the state demanding and recording as much information it can about us. In the former situation, the information is held in a fragmentary manner across multiple institutions and we have the choice not to use the services and therefore not to divulge the information if we wish. These factors limit the dangers from having such information recorded — though the dangers are yet such that we need data protection laws and they should probably be strengthened. One might add too that using an unregistered pay as you go phone only leaves anonymous records of your activities.

Secondly, this passage reveals one of the dangers of the ID cards, the centralisation of the information and the ability to connect all the information together at one point. A national ID card will facilitate such centralisation by the state and thus give the sate considerable power over individuals because it will know their detailed activities. “Joining the dots” is precisely what is difficult at the moment and what an ID card with an associated central database would enable — though admittedly other trends are making joining the dots easier independently of ID cards. Still an ID card would magnify the dangers we already face from lax attitudes towards the data we leave around. It would also become a licence to live, in that without an ID card it would become impossible to lead one’s every day life. This licence will be revocable by state officials at any time for any reason they deem fit.

Regarding the claims that ID cards may be ineffective for fighting crime and terrorism made by civil libertarians, the leader states:

The temptation of them is to propose absurdly contradictory arguments namely: a) “they” will know all about you all of the time; and b) “they” will inevitably get the technology wrong

Certainly, people doubt the cards on the basis of government incompetence with computer schemes, but the contradiction above is more apparent than real.

It can be the case that the cards enable the governemnt to exert more social control over generally law abiding citizens, including enabling surveillance of everyday acitvities and be the case that the cards can be easily circumvented, due to govt incompetence or any other factors you might name, by terrorists, criminals illegal immigrants and anyone else who wishes to avoid the inconvenineces the cards might cause.

The point is that the law abiding majority will tend to cooperate with the system for fear of punishment and expose themselves to such surveillance and other potential abuses of the system whilst those who have no qualms about breaking the law will subvert the system to their own ends.

Thus the state incompetence or inability to actually control would be terrorists and criminals and the odd clever civil libertarian via the system does not transfer to the state’s ability to control the law abiding majority with the system. The cynical might suggest that controlling the majority is the whole point, whilst crime fighting and dealing with terrorism are just the sales packaging.

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