In the debate about the use of identity cards, educationalist Duncan Prowse,
a card-carrying opponent of the proposition, puts his case for London Grip.

Opposing the ID card scheme is not just a melodramatic Libertarian reflex action to excess government. It’s a stand on principle against potential oppression. No government (or company or individual) can be trusted with so much information about anyone and everyone. That information is almost certain, sooner or later, to be mislaid through human and machine mistakes or by criminal intent, and then misused in plain bungles, or for practically and politically malign purposes.

We know that mistakes are made –  there has been the infamous loss of disks containing 25 million Child Benefit records, plus six other “significant losses” and an admission of “systemic failure” by the temporary head of HM Customs and Revenue. The Revenue has also lost disks which contained records of UBS’ PEP investors and 15,000 Standard Life customers.  Last year 80,000 people suffered identity fraud and sales of shredders are booming. As Cambridge Professor Ross Anderson said on Newsnight, the larger the databases being collected, the more impossible it is to guarantee their security. The Police National DNA database has four million records so far; the National Health will potentially have 60 million records; Police, local government, HMRC, DVLA, Passports, Education, Defence, Immigration, Agriculture, Employment, Pensions . . .  And that is just the government’s little hoard of data. Add in bank cards, credit cards, supermarket loyalty cards, travel cards, social networking websites, online shopping, Britain’s 4.2 million surveillance cameras, email and phone records – and the list gets menacingly long.

Until recently apocalyptic stories about people controlled by technology have been confined to dystopian literature. Now it is a real possibility. Modern computing is on the brink of being able to deliver it. Large companies like EDS, KPMG, Siemens, Capita, BT and many others are jostling to get their snouts into the profits of huge government IT contracts. Most contracts have been over budget and under performing, but the gravy train rolls on. The ID cards scheme will dwarf them all in size and in technical difficulty. The latest cost estimate is £5.5bn. The Tories think it will eventually cost £20bn. The chances of it being secure are zero. Already fingerprints can be reverse engineered from digital data, or apparently just with a kid’s gelatine kit. Once an individual’s finger prints, iris scans and DNA have been misappropriated, it will be impossible to re-establish his or her right to take part in normal life. At least PIN numbers and driving licences can be changed. But if your biometric data has been black marketed by Russian internet fraudsters, getting your life back may be next to impossible. The fate of those people may be that of Huxley’s outcast savages in Brave New World. And yet, Alistair Darling said in Parliament recently that because ID cards will be biometric, the data will be safe! Only the technically and politically naïve would swallow that.

We have developed an unhealthy appetite for the illusion of safety – a mania for personal security, which is thought to be crucial in every sphere of life from shopping, to well, shopping. Governments have inflated their own importance (‘twas ever thus) by promising what they cannot deliver – that everyone will live cosily in their own little bubble of security without thinking about the price to be paid for it. In short, people are queuing up for doses of Huxley’s drug Soma and the government is saying it can deliver it.

The Americans might be forgiven for being fearful for their own safety after the tragedy of September 11th 2001, when some 3,000 people died. But apart from that they have lived in domestic peace and security ever since the Civil War. That is if you don’t count deaths from gunfire, which according the New York Times run at over 80 a day; and if you forget that in 2006, 42,642 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes; or the occasional act of domestic terrorism, such as the Oklahoma bombing in 1995 which left 168 dead and 800 injured; or that well over 3,000 US soldiers have now died in Iraq.

By contrast, Britain is a woefully violent place. In 2005/6 there were fifty deaths in gun crimes and 3,200 road deaths. So, when fifty-two people died in the July 7th London bombings, Tony Blair said that the rules of the game had changed and many people believed him. But what was plain was that he panicked and his reaction was typical spin designed to exploit popular fear and make him look like the man in charge. Changing the rules meant, as Home Secretary John Reid said, “Sometimes we have to modify some of our freedoms – in the short term – in order to prevent their misuse.”  By whom?

If Blair had been a better historian he might have remembered that not long ago the IRA made serious efforts to undermine the security of the average Briton. In the 1970s they bombed Parliament, the Tower of London, Brookes Club, a pub in Birmingham where nineteen died and a coach in which eleven people including two children were killed. Their tally included politician Airey Neave, the Queen’s cousin Lord Mountbatten, the British Ambassador to Holland, founder of the Guinness Book of Records, Ross McWhirter, and nineteen soldiers at Warren Point. In 1984 they bombed the Tory party conference and almost got Margaret Thatcher. Their campaign continued well into the 1990s. If ever there was an excuse for making a bonfire of British liberties, IRA terrorism provided it.

But we prided ourselves that the IRA did not destroy our lives or liberties:  they weren’t foreign and they weren’t Muslim – so not really a threat then. Or maybe, terrorism is not the real issue? Otherwise why would we still be making new Muslim enemies in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Palestine? Sometimes, it takes ages for the penny to drop with the poor, unsuspecting public who still think politicians say what they actually mean. Maybe the loss of civil liberties is a small price to pay for extending bureaucratic intrusion into every form of civil behaviour? What’s certain is that rights hard-won over the last 300 years are disappearing fast.

The list of disappearing liberties is enormous. According to Lib-Dem Nick Clegg, Labour had created over 3,000 new crimes by 2001. The 2000 Terrorism Act allows the police unlimited stop and search powers. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act of 2005 outlaws protest within a square kilometre of Parliament. The 2006 Terrorism Act brought in an offence called “encouragement of terrorism”. The detention without charge period has been increased to 28 days and Gordon Brown wants to extend it to 42 days, against the advice of almost everyone except Sir Ian Blair.  The USA manages with two days, Russia five and Turkey with 7½ days. Foreign nationals in the UK can be held indefinitely and anyone can be extradited to the US without evidence. Britain has been complicit in torture and Extraordinary Rendition and under the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act any British citizen can be placed under house arrest by order of the Home Secretary on the strength of “reasonable suspicion”.

A few stalwarts are campaigning against the trend. Chris Atkins produced a book and a film called “Taking Liberties”; Henry Porter writes regularly on the subject in The Observer; Liberty’s Shami Chakrabarti manages to get a hearing on TV and in the newspapers. But Brown, like Blair, is still able to count on that worst enemy of civil liberties, the intellectual sloth who says, “I haven’t done anything wrong, so why should I worry?”  Or, “The government knows things I don’t and I trust them to do the right thing.” Or, “It’ll make it easier to catch the evil people.”

To be fair, the British people have got used to trusting their fundamentally benign institutions of state. For hundreds of years their actions and beliefs have been sufficiently anodyne and consensual to avoid seriously upsetting anyone, even through a couple of World Wars.

The English had their last argument with a malign government in the seventeenth century. The Civil War was fought to end the notion of top-down government by a king who thought his authority was issued by Divine Right. In 1649 he had his head cut off. Subsequent monarchs have been on the throne strictly by invitation of the people. We have forgotten what malign and absolute government looks like. We should ask the Germans, any European old enough to remember German or Soviet occupation, the Russians, the Chinese, or the inhabitants of most countries in the Middle East, Africa and South America. They all know that benign government is the exception, not the rule.

We British take for granted principles like innocent until proved guilty, common law and habeas corpus. Habeas corpus (the right to “have your body” free from arbitrary imprisonment) dates from the twelfth century and became law in 1679. Although much eroded, we still live in a society of democracy deep enough to support quaint concepts like “nimby”-ism – impossible in most countries where planning is decided by centralised technocratic decree (or corruption). But now planning, too, is to be centralised and streamlined. Philosophically we still fondly imagine that governments are the servants of the people and politicians pander to that notion when they make mock-humble statements in Parliament. Our near neighbours in Europe may have more up-to-date brands of democracy than ours, but they have no such bedrock foundations in bottom-up government by consent.

European traditions of political philosophy are fundamentally top-down models that trace their heritage from feudalism, via Louis XIV through to the Napoleonic codes. The basis of government is the state’s ownership of the individual. In spite of more than a century of revolutions against this totalitarian tendency, the result was Fascism in the West and Communism in the East. Only in 1945 and 1989 were these regimes toppled by democracy – a concept that is still far from safe in the former Soviet countries. Russia is currently galloping back towards Tsarism in an orgy of paranoid nationalism.

By contrast, the Anglo-American tradition was set out more than 350 years ago by the Levellers who pronounced, “That the power of this and all future representatives of this nation is inferior only to theirs who choose them…”. Just as the Stewart kings could not be trusted with a standing army, in case it was used as an instrument of oppression, so today’s government cannot be trusted with vast databases of individual behaviour. And there is very grave doubt that an ID card will make us any safer for all the fifty-three pieces of information it will carry. “ID cards may be helpful in all kinds of things but I don’t think they are necessarily going to make us any safer,” said Dame Stella Rimington, former Head of MI5.

However, we cannot and should not be Luddites. We accept and use technology which threatens our privacy every day. We all benefit from global technology. But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it all. ID cards are merely the visible summit of an undersea volcano. We should be sceptical and explore all the way down to the sea bed before we make compromises with our hard-won liberty.

One practical solution is in preventing the aggregation of data, keeping it fragmented in many different sources. We are not going to do without credit cards, mobile phones or medical records. But we can pass laws to stop information collected for one purpose being used for another. One GP practice losing patient records is a disaster, but it’s a small and localised one. No one at Lloyds is going to improve their margins much by denying life insurance to the five AIDS patients on one practice list. And if you are wrongly logged as an alcoholic, you will not have to provoke a debate in Parliament to get the record changed, which was the experience of Mrs Helen Wilkinson of High Wycombe. Chinese walls were erected to prevent conflicts of interest in the City of London, and apart from the occasional Pyramus and Thisby of insider trading, peeping through chinks in walls seems to have been limited.

At the moment, the reverse is happening every day. Surveillance camera data collected for the central London Congestion Charge was quietly and without protest made available to the police. Would Moscow’s citizens have thought it a good idea to give Comrade Beria’s NKVD similar evidence of the daily movements of every citizen? Obviously, not enough people have seen The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen), the 2006 Academy Award winning film. GCHQ shares data with American spy networks and new laws in America will require Internet Service Providers to keep records of all internet activity. Google has given in to Chinese authoritarianism and censored internet searches into the killings of civilians  associated with the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

Sometimes clichés say it all: small is beautiful; divide and rule; caveat emptor . . .  And sometimes we have to be clear-sighted about preserving our principles. As that great champion of liberty Tom Paine said, “He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression.”