August 11, 2020

On 21 January, 2011, the Identity Cards Act of 2006 was repealed. So ended New Labour’s attempt to push compulsory ID cards on the British people. The repeal was a mere formality, of course — the fulfilment of a promise made by the Coalition Government in 2010 — but it was a rather odd, if now forgotten, moment in our politics: liberal Conservatives coming together with the Liberal Democrats to overturn the ‘tough-on-crime’ policies of the Labour Party. You try telling the young people of today that — and they won’t believe you.

The Lib Dems have since disappeared into irrelevance. The lib Cons are still around — and include in their number our current Prime Minister. But could the man who buried David Cameron’s premiership be the one to resurrect ID cards?

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There’s no point rehashing the arguments made in the early 2000s. This is an issue in which the case for and against is prone to exaggeration. The fact is that a liberal democracy can have compulsory ID cards without sliding into dictatorship — or not have them and avoid anarchy. There are plenty of examples of both scenarios.

So, instead of having the old argument, let’s have a new one. I’ve always been instinctively opposed to ID cards, but looking at the underlying dynamics of the issue, 2020 looks very different from 2010. The most obvious — and recent — of game-changing developments is the Covid crisis. The future is pathogenic now. Even if there’s no second wave, we cannot assume a new normal in which pandemic disease risk isn’t a major policy consideration.

Lockdown has restricted our freedoms in ways that make the concerns of the ID card debate look trivial. We’re now presented with plausible — indeed, likely — scenarios in which our freedom of movement and association depends on us being able to produce documented facts about ourselves: quarantine certificates; vaccination records; immunity status; test, trace and tracking data.

In terms of international travel some of this is already in force — with passports serving as the primary means of proving ID. How long before ID cards serve a parallel function as ‘internal passports’? It’s a disturbing concept, but as an alternative to general lockdown, it may be the least worst option.

Another game-changing development is new technology. Back in 2010 we hadn’t yet woken up to the full implications of social media. We didn’t realise just how much the tech companies knew about us. A lot of people weren’t even using smartphones yet. In 2020, we still don’t know the whole story, but we’ve come to accept a significant degree of electronic surveillance in our everyday lives. Thus the idea of being easily identified doesn’t seem so foreign anymore, not when we’re identified every time we go online to shop, socialise and express our opinions.

Of course, the information flows that would be enabled through ID cards would be controlled by the state — and the state, unlike Facebook or Google, has the power to arrest and imprison you. So, the stakes are higher. But, then again, if the authorities want to track your movements and behaviour, they already can.

The last ten years have seen rapid advances across a variety of surveillance technologies, including facial recognition, gait recognition, and even heartbeat recognition. The CCTV network is ever expanding in scope and sophistication and is supplemented by drones and other mobile forms of image capture. And that’s just one form of big data collected by the various arms of the state.

In short, if you’re leading any sort of normal life, the authorities don’t need you to carry around an ID card in order to identify you.

Indeed, the bigger risk may lie in not being identified. This was demonstrated by the Windrush Scandal — in which people who had immigrated to this country from the Caribbean were required to prove to the authorities that they’d been legally resident in the UK. For the Windrush generation who arrived before legal immigration was documented in the way it is now, this was difficult to do. Shamefully, longstanding UK residents were deported because they were unable to assemble the documentary evidence that wasn’t there — or, at least, wasn’t accessible. The scandal was in fact two scandals: first and foremost the inhumanity of plunging innocent people into a Kafkaesque nightmare; but also that it should be so hard to prove the basic facts of your own life.

A future full of big data will be a hyper-bureaucratic future. In our dealings with both the state and private corporations it is, therefore, vital that we have some consistent hold over the way our identities are recorded and recognised. ID cards could provide that control — a key that grants us access to what we need to know and what we want others to know about us. There’s no guarantee that the introduction of such a system would guarantee our rights, but it would be an opportunity to fight for them.


We also need to think about the people who slip through the cracks of the system — living undocumented, unofficial lives unsupported and unprotected by the authorities. Only a small minority of these will be citizens who freely choose an ‘off-grid’ existence — a choice that should be respected. The great majority, though, will be vulnerable adults and children, many of them illegal immigrants, some of them trafficked against their will — and all of them at risk of exploitation. A recent report from the Centre for Social Justice estimates that there may be 100,000 or more victims of modern slavery in Britain alone.

We make things easy for this vile trade by tolerating, even celebrating, a bargain basement labour market — the legal and illegal components of which shade into one another. This is further enabled by a context in which it’s still possible for people to live and work without needing to prove who they are — and without their employers and landlords having to confirm those identities. A robust ID card system that made this simple and straightforward — but also inescapable — would be a severe blow to the modern slavers, people smugglers, slum landlords and other exploiters who depend on the anonymity of those they exploit.

Of course, no such system can be foolproof, nor would it be completely free of inconvenience for law abiding citizens. However, the same can be said of our passports system. Ultimately, it is a question of comparing these potential harms against the consequences of the status quo — in which we’re neither able to fully control our borders nor to prevent the everyday violation of basic human rights.


What about the practical arrangements? One of the reasons why there was such resistance to New Labour’s ID cards policy was the lack of confidence in the government’s ability to manage IT projects. Indeed, the decade was marked by a series of fiascos — including one occasion when two CDs containing confidential child benefit data on 25 million people got lost in the post. Yes, really. The ensuing outrage was probably what doomed the ID policy before it was even implemented.

Is there any reason why we should have any more confidence in government today? The faltering progress on the promised test-and-trace app isn’t exactly encouraging. However, there’s no reason why governments can’t deliver ambitious IT projects. Singapore and Taiwan have impressed the world with their use of tech to control the spread of Covid. As it happens, both countries also have compulsory ID card systems. Another interesting model is Estonia, a world leader in providing online government services. Estonians can even vote in national elections online. And that’s despite the country being under constant cyber-attack. 

So if they can do it, why can’t we? Well, the fact is that we can. Any ID card system could be based on systems that have been successfully and reliably computerised. The passports system is the obvious example and an appropriate one if ID cards are re-introduced as means of exempting individuals from future lockdown restrictions. 

If HMG ever persuades the British people to accept ID cards it must be in the service of our overall convenience, not theirs. Every ID card should come as part of a package that also includes a free passport and, for those suitably qualified, a free driving license too. As in Estonia, it should provide strong authentication for access to online government services and participating private sector websites. And even if we don’t immediately follow the Estonian example of internet-based voting, ID cards could be used to provide a robust system of confirming identity for voting by post and at polling stations. 


Then there’s the question of electronic cash. Thanks to innovations like contactless payments and online retail we’re using less physical cash than ever. Covid has only accelerated the decline of notes and coins, whose circulation through so many hands makes them a potential vector of disease. But to do without them altogether would require some form of e-cash — that is, not a credit or debit card, but a card that carries a digital currency for making instant, frictionless payments. In other words, something like an Oyster Card, but which could be used anywhere.

The big tech companies smell an opportunity. Some of them, like Facebook with its Libra project, are already on the case. But do we really want private companies running the digital currencies of the future? Or do we want one of the very oldest functions of government to stay in public hands? Writing in The Guardian, the economist Kenneth Rogoff suggests one possible way forward:

“The most radical approach would be a dominant retail central-bank currency which allows consumers to hold accounts directly at the central bank. This could have some great advantages, such as guaranteeing financial inclusion and snuffing out bank runs.”

It doesn’t have to go quite that far, but if currencies do go fully digital then making sure that everyone has access to the means of exchange becomes absolutely essential. At the very least, government needs to provide some form of guaranteed basic account. But that, of course, raises the question of identification. It probably wouldn’t be a good idea to have our electronic cash on the same piece of plastic as our ID, but the two would have to be linked in some way.


William Gibson once said that “the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed”. Well, a future in which everyone is subject to constant, electronic, centralised identification is certainly on its way.

The things that were decentralised — the little bits of information we give away through our relationships with friends, family, strangers, suppliers, customers and the agencies of the state — are inexorably coming together. But that process of centralisation is not evenly distributed. It privileges the most powerful organisations and is taking place away from public scrutiny.

ID cards might just be our best chance to drag the centralisation of our data — our very identities — into the light. It’s not a question of whether we’ll be ID’d in every moment of our lives, but how.