Wednesday, 21 April 2010


NO2ID — Stop ID cards and the database stateAs witnessed by the latest debate between the current and prospective Home Secretaries on the BBC, Labour is still pushing with its misguided ID cards plan. The debate itself did not really tackle the real and best reasons for this plan being wrong, if not positively harmful. The Lib Dem and Tory hopefuls mostly talked about the cost. Of course, the cost is one of the reasons to oppose a new ID card scheme. There's so many more useful things that could be done with the money. But, it is neither the only, nor the most important one, and I propose to say a few words on others.

(I couldn't find a link to the televised Home Secretary debate, so here's one to the BBC coverage of the general civil liberties issue in this year's parliamentary elections. Oh, and I'm not linking to Tories - ever.)

There's one thing I need to clarify before I continue. The issue here is introduction of compulsory (and to an extent even voluntary) ID cards for British citizens. I do not think I entirely disagree with non-EU foreign nationals with residence rights in the UK requiring some form of registration, and an ID card seems to be a good way to go about it. In any case, I haven't given this particular use case enough thought to be able to give a reasoned opinion on it. Please keep this in mind when reading the remainder of this post.

OK. We should now be ready to have a look at the cons of introducing ID cards to United Kingdom (and possibly elsewhere - the issues I have in mind are quite universal). I'll also try to fairly present any pros I may feel exist, but I don't think there'll be that many, and certainly not enough for me to want to support concept of ID cards.

Let's first see what ID card proponents think are the benefits of such a system...
  1. Simplifying various checks required for access to products services.

    These are usually listed as: age checks to buy tobacco, alcohol, and lottery tickets; identity check for access to healthcare, banking, and similar. The argument goes that today, you already need to provide a form of identification, and sometimes (e.g. banking) more than one. Carrying an ID that is recognised nationwide would be very much simpler. While this is true, it is also true that the current system seems to be working just fine, with no calls from any of the stakeholders for it to be renewed or even improved. Compulsory ID cards will simplify things, but the cost of the system cannot be justified by the alleged benefit. Furthermore, the use cases where more than one form of ID is required (e.g. banking, legal transactions) are in fact quite sensitive and replying on just one, potentially forged (and certainly forgeable) form of ID, has the potential to seriously undermine the stated goals. So, a huge amount of money needed for ID cards system (and its maintenance) is hardly justified for "fixing" a system that's not in fact broken. Not to mention that it may actually make things worse (see below).

  2. With an ID card only you can be you

    We've heard this one before. It was used to promote chip-and-pin credit cards. This claim is equally false for ID cards. At least for chip-and-pin it is easily shown that, armed with your card, anyone who also knows your PIN code can quite effectively be "you" when it comes to over-the-counter purchases. But let's see what ID card proponents mean by this...

    ID cards store some personal biometric information about the owner (or whoever manages to get a forged one) - photo, fingerprints, iris scan... that sort. At the point of use, this embedded information is compared with the fresh set taken from the bearer. If they match the person is considered identity verified, i.e. the are now believed to be the person whose data is recorded on the card. It should be fairly obvious that this is in fact not the case at all! The only thing we verified is that the bearer matches what was recorded on the card, and not necessarily that they are the person whose identity is the same as the one's whose details are on the card. Obvious examples are name and address. These may be completely false or at least somebody else's.

    So, if you have the intention and the resources to forge an ID card, and the system becomes ubiquitous, it just means that the person with a forged card will have a much easier time gaining access to whatever they wanted illegal access to in the first place. And this brings us to the most dangerous aspect of a ubiquitous ID card system that is widely believed to be "working"...

  3. ID cards cannot be forged, or are at least too difficult to forge, and hence can be trusted

    Let us not waste time on the "cannot be forged" part. Everything can be forged given enough time and sufficient resources. It may be expensive, but it is always possible. Also, you do not even need to forge a card. It is quite sufficient if you can bribe or threaten your way to a perfectly kosher one, but with details of your choice on it and, importantly, the database behind it. This usually takes just one weak human link in the system. Again, this may be expensive, but it is not impossible.
    OK, you may say, but this can surely be made prohibitively expensive, so not many people will actually do it. And therein lies the biggest danger of an ID card system that is trusted implicitly, so no or little further checks are made. While expensive forgeries will surely provide benefits in fighting problems in some identification areas, these also tend to be the ones that, while hugely emotional - especially in an election campaign - are far from the most important thing we need to worry about.

    Yes, kids should be prevented from buying booze and fags, and it may be just barely right to prevent illegal immigrants from obtaining access to free healthcare. But expensive forgeries, create a much more dangerous system in which those with resources gain easy access to any number of things they should not have access to. They become "invisible" to the system, and join the ranks of law-abiding citizenry. Think organised crime. Think terrorists. All the very people ID card system is supposed to stop. Ridiculous!
There's certainly more points on which an ID card scheme can be attacked, most notably the sheer size of the database making it error prone, and also potential linking to other government databases of such an erroneous source creating all sorts of problems for innocent people. I won't go into these for several reasons: I do not feel qualified enough to discuss these areas of possible misuse, I want to keep this post short (well, shortish - I know it already isn't), and last but not least, this has been extensively covered on The Register - just hop on there and have a look. They did a far better job of it than I ever could.

Last thing I want to say is that I have very close and personal experience of ID cards. They are, and have always been, compulsory in Serbia (and previously all incarnations of the post WW2 Yugoslavia). Have they stopped anyone there from committing crimes and falsely identifying themselves? Of course not! I can confidently say that in terms of all the issues listed above the situation in the UK is already very much better. Of course, I am not saying that this is because of ID cards (not) being used. That'd be silly, and in all likelihood completely untrue. But what can be seen for sure is that having ID cards did not help. At all.