Artillery Row

Reconsidering the case for ID cards

If tracking Covid-19 requires “immunity passports” then why not as part of an ID card?

Not once, but twice, the Conservatives have abolished a British national identity card. The first time was an early act of Churchill’s second government when, in 1952, the identity scheme that had been rushed into use at the start of the second world war was finally abolished, seven years after that conflict ended.

The second occasion is more recent but almost forgotten. Having been thwarted in his attempts to introduce a compulsory scheme, Tony Blair introduced voluntary identity cards in 2006. In 2011, the home secretary, Theresa May, had them destroyed, literally: the hard drives containing the identity database were put through a grinding machine at a facility in Essex.

Nine years later, a Conservative government, facing different challenges, finds itself presented with the opportunity to think again.

The government’s expert medical opinion is unequivocal that any exit from the lockdown needs to be tightly controlled if a second, perhaps deadlier, wave of infections is to be avoided. This implies many more months of severe social distancing measures, which are currently costing the British economy an estimated £2.4 billion a day. The government has to bet that technology will provide a solution.

NHSX, the technology wing of the national health service, is producing an app that will allow mobile phones to trace users who have come into contact with infected people, thus alerting them to get tested. Similar technology has been deployed successfully in Singapore.

The app might also serve as an “immunity passport” by providing evidence that the registered user has been proven by official testing to be immune from the disease. If it is done correctly, the effects should be highly beneficial, allowing the public to safely emerge back into society and the economy to move out of its coma.

The development and roll out of this limited technology by the state will be complex and hard to achieve, especially if it is kept voluntary, as is seemingly the plan. There are also substantial privacy concerns: even though ministers have promised to keep the data anonymous and under oversight, previous experience has shown how hard this is to achieve.

If we are to accept this level of state intrusion into daily life, ought we to concede that a more comprehensive level would at least bring greater benefits?

Other countries, like South Korea and Taiwan, have successfully tacked the virus with a much more detailed data set, such as health records and travel history. The key difference is that the data they are using is based not on a one-off app, but a national identity system. Perhaps the UK should follow suit.

The gains from creating a national identity scheme would be two-fold. First is that the data would be much richer, and could be used far more effectively to not only fight the virus, but to benefit the country more broadly. Second is that it would be fully accountable to the public.

Data to control and confirm immigration and citizenship would be boosted by having a national identity card, something that is all the more relevant post-Brexit. In the aftermath of the Windrush affair, two former Labour home secretaries, Alan Johnson and Charles Clarke, claimed that the scandal could have been prevented if identity cards had been in use. Such a system, they said, is “the best way to prove and so protect a citizen’s identity.”

ID cards could help to solve a number of other issues that have cropped up in recent years, such as voter fraud and identity theft. They could also drastically improve the ability of the state to serve its citizens, and save a meaningful amount of money at the same time.

Estonia has shown how. Its government claims that 99 percent of public services, from voting to tax to national health insurance, are available through the centralised digital identity system it has built. Not only has this improved access, it has also led to immense cost savings – a staggering eight hundred years of worktime for the state and citizens annually. Given that Estonia’s population is less than a sixth the size of London’s, this would be a considerable contribution for the United Kingdom.

A fully government-controlled identity system would face far more stringent and accountable controls than the semi-private app on offer.

There is also a social argument for introducing an identity system to the UK. In Germany, the national identity card, the personalausweis, not only provides a rite of passage from child to adult but is also the key for active citizenship. With the UK under strain from Scottish and Welsh nationalists, a country-wide identity scheme would hopefully add another layer of national cohesion.

That is the experience in many other countries. In Singapore, for example, being in possession of a national identity card is a mark not only of belonging, but also of pride. In a country with a distinct ethnic mix, its government has worked hard to create a set of supra-ethnic monikers to bind all its citizens to the nation and the ID card goes a long way in achieving that. Whether you are Malay, Chinese, Indian, or Western, the card says you are Singaporean in a day-to-day manner that can’t quite be replicated by other means.

The Singaporean identity system has also made it easier for the authorities to keep control of the spread of coronavirus, through more reliable outbreak tracking, quarantine control, and border restrictions. The identity system’s use has undoubtedly saved both money and, more importantly, lives.

Singapore, though, is not the United Kingdom. It is notably more authoritarian, and many of the measures that have been adopted – such as the immediate expulsion of foreign workers who breach quarantine notices – would be hard fought in the UK.

Traditionally the British don’t appreciate undue state intrusion. As The Guardian argued in an editorial when identity cards were abandoned in 1952, “if our affairs were governed by strictest considerations of efficiency we should all not only carry identity cards but also work-books … and have our fingers printed … But in this country, we do not like this sort of thing.”

Yet this was before the rise of tech. Facebook and similar firms hold trillions of data points about us, and with not much accountability on how they are stored or used. Issues of privacy that once dominated ID card debates have been broken down as we have become inured to handing over our personal information in exchange for utility. It is this very shift in the public perception of privacy that NHSX is depending on to make the virus tracking app work – so long as the data is used responsibly. A fully government-controlled identity system would face far more stringent and accountable controls than the semi-private app on offer.

The Covid-19 pandemic is the worst crisis this country has faced since the second world war. As with then, we need to consider all options to get us out of it, including ones that might have seemed startling not long ago. E-identity cards might, and should, be part of this.

The Attlee government postponed the abolition of identity cards because of their immense utility in National Service registration, welfare payments, and using the NHS. And what better utility is there in keeping the population healthy and in work?

Sam Olsen is the co-founder of Metis Intelligence.

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