Select Committee on Home Affairs Fourth Report


50. Objections to identity cards fall broadly into three camps. Some oppose the Government's proposals, or elements such as compulsion to register, outright, on grounds of principle or because they believe the scheme to be unworkable technically. Others do not oppose an identity card scheme in principle, but have significant reservations about the Government's proposals as they stand. Others question whether the Government's scheme is an effective or cost-effective way of tackling the problems it is designed to solve. This section of the report will cover the first group: practical concerns, including issues of cost and effectiveness, and objections to details of the Bill, will be dealt with later.

Concerns of principle

51. Privacy International and Liberty opposed identity cards on constitutional grounds. They argued, firstly, that identity cards would fundamentally change the balance between citizens and the state by imposing a general requirement to prove one's own identity.[35] Shami Chakrabarti, the Director of Liberty, said: "From a constitutional point of view, it is worth noting that there is not a single compulsory identifier in any other common law tradition in the world and that demonstrates the heart of the argument."[36] (We note that the Home Office have disputed the argument that no common law countries have identity cards, pointing within the EU to Cyprus, "a common law jurisdiction which has identity cards which all Cypriot citizens over the age of 12 have to obtain".[37])

52. Secondly, it was argued that there would be a new requirement to register information, including sensitive personal biometric data, with the state. This is a significant new obligation on the individual citizen which will be intrusive in operation.

53. Thirdly, while it might be acceptable to have to demonstrate identity, and hence entitlement, to specific services for specific purposes, the imposition by the state of a single system of identification which had to be used for a wide variety of different purposes—rather than the current reliance on different forms of identification for different purposes—was a significant change in the obligation placed on individuals and the relationship they have with public and private bodies.

54. Fourthly, because in principle information about individuals should be held only for particular purposes, there were currently proper limits on the proper sharing of data between public bodies. To the extent that an identity card system required wider sharing of information between different bodies and organisations, the privacy of individuals would be reduced.

55. Simon Davies, the Director of Privacy International, argued that the Government's proposals would be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) since the concept of privacy intrusion was culturally relative and the current proposal would fundamentally change the nature of privacy in the United Kingdom without overriding justification.[38] Liberty, however, took the view that while the European Court on Human Rights might not find any difficulty with identity cards, since the majority of European countries had them, courts in the UK would have to take a stricter approach to Article 8 of the ECHR, which covers the right to respect for family and private life.[39]

56. The Director of Liberty further argued that experience in other European countries showed that identity cards would tend to worsen relations with minority groups, by exacerbating existing tensions.[40] (The issue of how identity cards would affect vulnerable groups, including minority ethnic groups, is covered in more detail in paragraphs 139-141.)

57. Witnesses opposed to identity cards on principle also doubted that their benefits would be in proportion to their drawbacks. The Director of Liberty said that their constitutional concerns would have to be rebutted "by very compelling justification to the contrary that is necessary and proportionate".[41] For his part, the Director of Privacy International accepted that a simple identity card for specific purposes might well be lawful.[42] Many witnesses argued that no proper cost-benefit analysis had been done of identity cards and that the Government had not demonstrated that they would be the most effective way of tackling problems.

58. We do not think these objections of principle should be lightly dismissed. Nonetheless, it is clear that identity systems operate in other modern, liberal, functioning democracies. No challenge to identity cards has been successful in the European Court on Human Rights, and they appear to enjoy broad public support where they exist in the rest of Europe.

59. An identity card scheme of the sort and on the scale proposed by the Government would undoubtedly represent a significant change in the relationship between the state and the individual in this country. International experience does not suggest that objections of principle are overwhelming, although the development of a biometric-based scheme does introduce new elements that have not been tested elsewhere. We do not, however, believe that an identity card scheme should be rejected on constitutional grounds alone.

60. The test should be whether the measures needed to install and operate an effective identity card system are proportionate to the benefits such a system would bring and to the problems to be tackled and whether such a scheme is the most effective means of doing so. We examine these aspects in more detail in the next section.

Practical concerns

61. Some witnesses argued that the Government's proposals would not work or that the risks were unacceptable.

62. Professor Martyn Thomas, representing the UK Computing Research Committee, said:

The UK Computing Research Committee also expressed significant concerns over the security of a comprehensive system on the scale proposed. They argued that any sensitive database available to a large number of users would almost inevitably be successfully attacked. Therefore, data on the system should be kept to the minimum.[44] On the other hand, as noted in paragraph 146, other witnesses from the IT and smart card sector took the view that a single database could be made sufficiently secure, and that to create one was not of itself doomed to failure.

63. Professor Ross Anderson, Chair of the Foundation for Information Policy Research, an Internet policy think-tank, also argued that the more functions included in a system, the more fragile, difficult to maintain and expensive it became. Other, non-technical witnesses, however, were of the view that an identity card scheme would be of little use unless it enabled access to a range of services and facilitated joined-up government.

64. We consider the arguments for and against the technical aspects of the Government's proposals in more detail in the next section. The proposed system is unprecedentedly large and complex. It will contain sensitive personal information on tens of millions of individuals. Any failure will significantly affect the functioning of public and private services and personal and national security. Measures to ensure the integrity of the design, implementation and operation of the system must be built in to every aspect of its development. As we will remark at a number of points throughout this report, the Government's lack of clarity about the scope and practical operation of the scheme, and the nature of the procurement process, does not give us confidence that this will be achieved. We will make recommendations for addressing this serious weakness later in the report.

35   Q 163 Back

36   Q 159 Back

37   HC Deb, 24 May 2004, col 1416W Back

38   Q 180 Back

39   Ev 231 Back

40   Qq 159-161 Back

41   Q 155 Back

42   Q 180 Back

43   Q 344 Back

44   Ev 268 Back

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