R. A. Hettinga
rah at shipwright.com
Tue May 4 06:24:37 PDT 2004
The Wall Street Journal
May 4, 2004
REVIEW & OUTLOOK
May 4, 2004
The Scottish historian and philosopher David Hume once wrote that "it is
seldom that any liberty is lost all at once." British Home Secretary David
Blunkett seems to have taken Hume's lesson to heart with his slow-motion
effort to introduce mandatory identity cards in the U.K.
Last week, the U.K. began issuing national ID cards with biometric
information. The pilot program will issue 10,000 ID cards. But this plan is
scheduled to expand. By 2007 cards will be distributed "voluntarily" when
renewing a passport; those not interested in a biometric card will be free
to surrender their passports. Before the Parliament votes in 2012 or 2013
on whether to give everyone over 16 years of age a card and require people
to carry them at all times, 80% of the population will have been issued a
That's why now is the time for a serious debate over the merits of national
ID cards that will include a retinal scan, fingerprints or measurements of
the exact dimensions of the face in addition to the usual name, address,
and passport number. The cards might make life harder on illegal
immigrants, but it's hard to see how they would protect British subjects or
anyone else from terrorists.
Mr. Blunkett has managed to muddy the water by introducing the cards
incrementally and by fueling a stir over whether royals would carry them.
He is quoted in the media describing the level of fine for failing to
update an address, (#1,000), or failing to carry a card when (and if) the
program becomes mandatory (#2,500).
A Home Office that argues that such a program would protect against
identity theft, benefits fraud and illegal immigration has sought to
capitalize on fears and anxieties prompted by terrorist attacks to build
support for the program.
But all this distracts from the basic debate of whether the net benefit of
universal biometric ID cards is worth the cost in terms of civil liberties,
privacy and freedom. That debate has nothing to do with recent Home Office
It's important to acknowledge what a national ID program would and would
not do. Such a program undoubtedly would make life more difficult for
economic refugees and other immigrants.
That is not to say that immigrants would cease to flee unlivable economic
and political situations because of an added layer of regulation, but such
persons would be driven into an underground economy to an even greater
extent than currently. If Mr. Blunkett wants to debate immigration policy,
he should do so. Hiding xenophobic policies behind the terror threat, from
which many look to the government for protection, is disingenuous.
ID cards might also reduce some social security fraud. But British
taxpayers shouldn't see the cards as saving money. ID cards could prevent
an estimated 5% of the #2 billion of social-security fraud each year. But
once you've paid for the cards themselves (just over #3 billion according
to Mr. Blunkett's estimate) and bought 4,500 card readers, it's hard to see
a huge net gain. There are better, cheaper and less invasive methods of
Most importantly, ID cards would not protect against terrorists. To argue
that a small plastic card would present an obstacle to a suicidal
fundamentalist terrorist is preposterous.
Mr. Blunkett has danced just shy of this argument, saying, of course it
wouldn't prevent terror, and in the same breath arguing that it would help
terror enforcement. In the introduction to the bill, he's written "the
threat of global terrorism . . . make[s] secure identification more vital
But better protection against false identities wouldn't have prevented the
9/11 attacks, where individuals -- most with clean records and bona fide
papers -- entered the U.S., in some cases years before the attacks. Unlike
economic migrants, terrorists have the wherewithal to get their papers in
Al Qaeda terrorists are far too sophisticated to get tripped up by a
regulation requiring IDs. The attempt to harness the anxiety from the
Madrid bombings and channel it to provide momentum for his bill is
intellectually dishonest. Mr. Blunkett at least owes an undisguised debate
about ID cards.
R. A. Hettinga <mailto: rah at ibuc.com>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'
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