The introduction of ID cards has been, so to speak, on the cards since the instinctively authoritarian Tony Blair and David Blunkett were in power. Since first proposed, the ID card has gone through many changes of identity, being promoted as a solution to a progression of bogeymen, including immigrants, benefits cheats, and terrorists. It wouldn’t surprise me if paedophiles were in there somewhere, too. Throughout all this, it’s been clear that it’s been the idea of identity cards that’s come first, with the rationalisations being very much ex post facto.

In Britain, we’ve historically been wary of ID cards. We considered ourselves free by not having them, and look with scorn at our Ihre Papiere bitte!-barking continental neighbours, wondering how they can still believe in them after having seen identity being used to determine who got loaded onto the cattle trucks.

After a lull, the ID card debate is back in the news. I had the misfortune to wake up to hear Home Secretary Jacqui Smith on the radio the other day. She explained how ID cards would magically solve all the nation’s problems in the way that only someone with no clue what she’s talking about could actually believe. She explained:

This is not a database that is online, so it will not be possible to hack into it to that extent.

... referring to the recent loss of millions of individuals’ records and thus proving that she knows nothing about technology. But then, none of our politicians do, do they? Unfortunately, journalists tend not to be technical either, and the interviewer didn’t pick her up on this.

She explained how ID cards are going to be introduced step by step: the first small group of hardy frogs to get their water warmed will be the softest of targets: foreign nationals. Non-EU foreigners, that is: the ones we’re allowed to discriminate against. Plus, xenophobia’s a sure vote-winner.

From next year, they’ll be followed by airport staff. Wait a minute! Don’t airport staff already have identity cards? Why, I believe they do. It takes more than just a fluorescent tabard for any Tom, Dick or Harry to be allowed to wander out onto the tarmac. And a nationally-issued ID card still won’t be enough: they’ll need a specific system to vet employees and allow only the right people into the right places. So what will the ID card actually do for airport security? Nothing, I’d say.

But hey, never mind about that. Cards can protect us from identity theft! Jacqui Smith again:

What we add with the National Identity Scheme is we lock somebody’s identity. I’m able to lock my identity to something unique to me—my fingerprints—which means if somebody gets hold of information about me, they cannot then use that in the same way that they can at the moment.

I can’t believe that this will work—at least, not until everyone is on the database. Until then, an identity thief can collect the same information as they would right now. They can claim not to be registered yet, and, in the absence of a primary key, the information will be checked against the same fuzzy systems as it is now. This means that early adopters won’t benefit from early adoption—they don’t have much of an incentive to join.

What about terrorism?

What is clear is that Al-Qaeda themselves, for example, advise those planning attacks to try and seek multiple identities, to steal identities; it’s clear that if you want to cover your tracks, actually getting a false identity is one way of doing it. The National ID System, by actually linking your identity securely to a biometric like your fingerprints, makes that much less likely to happen, and therefore makes all of us better protected if we can be more certain that other people—particularly those that are working in sensitive roles and locations—are who they say they are.

Again, this benefit—preventing the maleficent from using multiple identities—is predicated on compulsory mass adoption. Until you can no longer answer, ‘I’m not on the system,’ multiple identities will be as easy to obtain as they are now. And none of this will stop the problem of known individuals carrying out attacks, like in New York, Madrid and London.

In fact, despite my crass comments about cattle trucks earlier, it turns out that some European countries have learned from history:

Even countries such as France and Germany have no national ID card register. Germany has constitutional limitations on the establishment of any national number.

No, this isn’t about the ID card. We can identify ourselves already. We have driving licences. My passport is enough that countries all over the world will allow me to enter. It’s about the single, overarching, centralised, biometric database of everyone in the country that they want to build. That’s the scary part. What are they planning to collect all this information for?