There’s a great piece just out today from Adam Molnar, guesting on Chris Parsons’ blog, about the soon-to-be released British Columbia Services Card, which features a Near-Field Communications (NFC) chip. It’s well worth reading Chris Parsons’ blog on a regular basis anyway, so check it out!
For a while now, I’ve been wondering why the US didn’t attempt to push for a national biometric ID card system in the wake of the 9/11 bombings.
Given reported statements from biometrics industry bosses about 9/11 being ‘what we’ve been waiting for’ and so on, one might have expected there to be a major effort in this direction but officially, as Zureik and Hindle (2004) point out, the International Biometrics Industry Association (IBIA) was relatively cautious in its post-9/11 press work, although it argued that biometrics had a major role to play in the fight against terrorism. Even the 9/11 Commission didn’t recommend a national ID card scheme, instead limiting itself in its final report to In its final report, to recommending a “biometric entry-exit screening system” for travelers in and out of the USA.
Part of this is because of the uneasy relations between the federal government and states governments, and suspicion of the former from the latter, and particularly from the political right has meant national ID cards have always been out of the question, even in an era of identification. So even though ID is frequently required in social situations, especially in dealing with banks, police and government agencies, the US relies on the ubiquitous driver’s licenses, which are issued by states not by the federal government. I remember from my time living in the US (in Virginia) as a non-driver, that in order to have valid form of ID, I had the choice of either carrying my passport or getting a special non-driver’s driver’s license, which always struck me simply as an absurd commentary on the importance of the automobiles in US life because, being young at the time, the nuances of federal-state relationships escaped me. And of course, passports won’t cut it for most, as less than 50% of US citizens have one.
So, if the apparently ubiquitous threat of terrorism was not going to scare states’ rights advocates and the right in general into swallowing the industry lines about security that they might usually have lapped up, what would? Well, the one thing that scares the right more than terrorism – Mexicans! More seriously, the paranoia about undocumented migrants combined with the spiralling cost of oppressive yet clearly ineffective border control (walls, drones, webcams, vigilantes etc. etc.) seems to have no done what the fear of terrorism could not, and inspired a push on both the centre and the right for ID cards – not that there’s much evidence that biometric ID cards will do a better job of excluding undocumented migrants, given that they do nothing to address what’s driving this migration – the demand for cheap, tax-free labour in the USA.
Today, not only the beltway insider’s bible, the Washington Post has an editorial demanding biometric social security cards for all (and a concomitant reduction in spending on hardening the border) following on from a cross-party senate recommendation, but also the Los Angeles Times, a paper which in the past has often been wary of the march to a ‘surveillance society’ – indeed it was the first major US newspaper to use this term, way back in 1970 as well as publishing critics like Gary Marx (see Murakami Wood, 2009) – has an op-ed arguing for a national ID card. The LA Times version, written by Robert Pastor, also claims that this is necessary to deal with voter fraud, a constant concern of the right and which always has a strong undertone of racism, so it’s unsurprising coming after a black Democrat has been elected as President for a second time in a tight election. Ironically, however, the President whose supporters are clearly the target of such attacks, has recently made it clear that he is also a supporter of a ‘tamper-proof’ national ID system.
No-one has yet made the international competition argument that is also so often used in these debates (‘if India and Brazil can do it, then surely the USA can’), but this debate is now ramping up in a way that even 9/11 couldn’t manage. Interesting times ahead…
There’s a very interesting video-report from Sebastian Meyer here on the US military use of biometrics in Afghanistan to try to identify Taliban in what he calls ‘frontline anthropology’. Wired revealed last month that the NATO / US army operation is planned to be expanded into a nationwide biometric ID card scheme by next May. Wired says that there are only two biometric systems operating in Afghanistan but they don’t seem to have noticed that the UNHCR mission in the country is also using biometrics to identify returnees who have already claimed the financial assistance on offer and are making fraudulent claims, in conjunction with the Afghan government. Are these systems all connected? More investigation is needed…
The UK full coalition agreement between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrat parties has just been published. It includes a section on civil liberties which is much more than we could have hoped for and which makes no mention of rolling back the Human Rights Act or the more ludicrous fringe Conservative demands… In full it is as follows:
“The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour government and roll back state intrusion.
This will include:
• A freedom or great repeal bill;
• The scrapping of the ID card scheme, the national identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point database;
• Outlawing the fingerprinting of children at school without parental permission;
• The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency;
• Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database;
• The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury;
• The restoration of rights to non-violent protest;
• The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech;
• Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation;
• Further regulation of CCTV;
• Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason;
• A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.”
All of these points are excellent. They lack detail of course, and the devil is always in the detail, and I would have liked to have seen a little more on what would be included in the ‘great repeal’ given that later it only talks about ‘safeguards’ against the abuse of anti-terrorism laws, but really this is as good as anyone could have hoped for, even, though they may not admit it, many of the more socially-liberal Labour Party supporters. The reform of libel laws and commitment to transparency is equally as welcome as the rolling back or regulation of surveillance, and this seems to extend into other parts of the agreement for the reform of government and elections. I hope the eventual full programme will also include some rationalisation of the crazy landscape of multiple ‘commissions’ to regulate different aspects of state-citizen information relations, in favour of an expanded and more powerful Information Commissioner’s Office, but we will see. However, this is a great start (and I never, ever, thought I would be saying that about a Conservative government…).
As both the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats in the UK had the scrapping of the National Identity Card card scheme as part of their manifesto, the unpopular program has been suspended immediately by the new coalition government, pending further announcements.
The full statement reads as follows:
“Both Parties that now form the new Government stated in their manifestos that they will cancel Identity Cards and the National Identity Register. We will announce in due course how this will be achieved. Applications can continue to be made for ID cards but we would advise anyone thinking of applying to wait for further announcements.
Until Parliament agrees otherwise, identity cards remain valid and as such can still be used as an identity document and for travel within Europe. We will update you with further information as soon as we have it.”
But although the cards will almost certainly go, despite the statement it is unclear yet what will be the fate of the National Identity Register (NIR), the new central database at the heart of the scheme. Neither party, and the Tories especially, said anything specific in their manifestos about scrapping the database, so we will see what happens here – although the statement issued seems categorical about this too. Although the end of the card scheme reduces opportunities for the ‘papers, please’ style abuse of minorities, it is the database that is of biggest concern to those interested in surveillance and social sorting. I have long favoured a secure central government Information Clearinghouse, which whilst transferring necessary information as needed and consented to between different parts of government, would not in itself hold any data. I suspect however, that some fudge will emerge!
In the meantime, the price of the coalition also was reported to include new legislation regulating video surveillance (CCTV) cameras (only about 20 years too late, but that’s the speed of British politics for you), and the review of many of the new powers in the (Anti-)Terrorism and Civil Contingencies Acts (and perhaps the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act too – though it hasn’t yet been mentioned specifically). It is very rare that legislation is repealed or rolled back but we may yet see an increase in civil liberties under the new coalition. The one big worry in this are though is the Conservative opposition to the Human Rights Act – however with their Liberal Democrat partners being committed to the HRA, I can’t see any moves to repeal the act in this Parliament.
I am cautiously optimistic…