Nosemonkey's EUtopia

In search of a European identity

ID cards, or, How everyone’s learned to stop worrying and love our surveillance culture

If you are reading this from the main Europhobia blog, rather than an RSS feed or someone’s later cut’n’paste, I can see you.

I can see your IP number. I can track your service provider. I can see what operating system you’re using, what web browser, what screen resolution you have your monitor set at. I can tell roughly where in the world you live – down to the nearest town or city at least. With a bit of cunning I would likely be able to find out who you are and precisely where you live, what street, what house. With the power of Google and various targetted search engines I would often be able to track down even more information – perhaps a photo, perhaps names of your friends and family, perhaps a phone number or a CV. From this I could build up a profile and piss around with your life. Your internet service provider can doubtless do the same – especially as they have the head-start of knowing who you are and where you live.

If you own a mobile phone, your provider can listen in on your calls. They can, with some newer models, track your location. They can tell who you are phoning, when, and for how long. They also will have your bank details. From this they could build up a profile and piss around with your life.

If you leave where you are now and walk down the road (especially in Britain), these days you will likely be picked up on a number of CCTV cameras. From the central control room someone could trace your every move – what shops you visit, what paper you read, what clothes you wear. From this they could build up a profile and piss around with your life.

If you go to any shop and buy something on your credit or debit card, your bank can peek into your lifestyle. Mine would see I buy far too many cigarettes and spend rather too much in several pubs scattered around London, occasionally splash out on a spree of book or DVD buying, like going to the cinema and prefer bitter to lager. From this they could build up a profile and piss around with my life.

We are already under constant surveillance. Thanks to the power of computers and the endemic penetration of other largely benign types of modern technology we already have little ability to protect our lives from prying eyes. Unless you live in the middle of nowhere, never use the net or the phone or any other service or utility (including mains water and electricity) and work purely with cash all the time, you cannot escape the prying eyes of Big Brother.

But, at the moment, Big Brother is not a single entity. He is a series of Little Brothers – perhaps loosely connected, but nonetheless not yet working as one. The occasional judder in the system may cause us problems, but we remain protected by law from too much deliberate, malicious intrusion from these various and disparate spies.

Now imagine someone collecting all this information together. All these little profiles compiled, indexed, and accessible at the click of a button. With your biometrics included as well… and your tax history… and your medical history… and as much more as they can think of to add over the years. It’s not too pleasant, even if that someone has no hostile intent, is it?

And what would happen if that information came into the hands of someone with hostile intent? Or society became so reliant on that information being THE TRUTH that if yours became corrupted you ended up unable to obtain basic goods and services, or treated like a criminal by the police, now unable to verify who, precisely – down to your fingerprints – you are.

Today the London School of Economics published its study of the British government’s proposed ID card scheme – an idea so old that Yes Minister did an episode about this very issue back in 1982.

It is, perhaps, an indication of just how used we have already become to the surveillance culture in which we live that the thing most likely to scupper Blair’s plans is not the fact that our biometric details are going to be stored on these things, effectively making us all mere entries on a national crime database and allowing any amount of exploitation should some unscrupulous person hack into the system, but the cost.

After all, I can find out about you merely by you visiting this site (and I could find out a lot more if I knew anything about computers beyond how to use a keyboard) – but you don’t mind too much because should I choose to pry into your life at least I don’t then send you an invoice for an invasion of your privacy which you never requested and probably somewhat resent. If I started doing that, you may take rather more interest in the cookies this site tries to set on your computer. You may install some software to make it more difficult for me to do it again. You would, in other words, wake up to how easy it is for people to trace your movements online and relay this back to the real world.

But what if there was nothing you could do? What if I could continue to pry into your life and continue to charge you every time you made the slightest change? What if you had no option other than to pay me every time I tell you to?

If anything is going to scupper Blair’s ID cards, it is not the concerns about invasions of privacy – most people think that this will never affect them. It’s not even the statistically incredibly likely chance of errors ocurring – even today’s Downing Street Press Conference was delayed by 20 minutes thanks to a security computer bug (multiply that inconvenience by 58 million and you’ll get an idea of the difficulties a glitch would create in the national ID database) – as most people simply reckon that, again statistically, it’s unlikely to happen to them.

It’s money, plain and simple.

So, for those of us who are utterly opposed to this abject nonsense (which appears to be the majority of the British blogosphere, from whatever political background), human rights group Liberty‘s slogan ID cards are Mr Blair’s poll tax needs to be made a well-known reality. It is only when they are seen by the majority of the politically uninterested public as yet another tax that these hideous plastic watchmen will be finally defeated, not before. And – thankfully – they are simply too damn expensive for the government to intruduce them without getting us poor chumps to stump them the cash.

Increase awareness of the cost, ID cards will once again fade away. We need to ensure that studies like that by the LSE are not brushed off as nonsense as the government is already trying to do. And we all need to phone our MPs before tomorrow’s vote to drive home our concerns.