giovedì, novembre 17, 2005

A Case of Mistaken Identity?

Tim BellTim Bell - The Guardian

Back in the UK, Prime Minister Tony Blair is still having a pretty tough time of things at the moment. With the bill for the introduction of ID cards now before the House of Lords in the UK, it is looking likely that he will suffer even more embarrassment before the month is out.

What is the fuss about ID cards though? In most of Europe ID cards are a normal requirement and can actually make all of our lives a little bit easier when we have dealings with bureaucracy or banking. What is it about the UK plans that have created such a furore there?

The UK have not had ID cards since the close of WW2, which has led to the general feeling there now that any form of ID card will be an infringement on their personal liberty. The ID card that is being proposed is much, much more than any form of ID card as the rest of us might know one though.

After the New York tragedy, the US government took advantage of the fear created in the minds of the American public and the Homeland Security Bill, better known as the Patriot Act, was quickly passed and became law. This allows the US government and their agents to do just about whatever they like without fear of any messy legal complaint being raised regarding civil liberties and the rights of the individual. This has extended to the US demanding that any foreigners entering the US will have to have a passport containing so-called biometric data about the bearer. In the USA this has ended up meaning that the passport issued to US citizens after next October will contain a smart chip that will hold a digital photograph of the bearer together with the name, date of birth, social security number and a few other bits of information. It will also contain a transmitter so that the data can be collected discreetly as well as having space for some other data in the future – either a digitised iris print or a fingerprint or two.

The UK have taken the US passport requirement and extended it, however. The plan is to have 13 biometric details encoded in the passport smart chip – oh, and whilst we are at it, why not do it to the ID card as well. The Blair government have also taken advantage of the UK chair of the EU to try to convince every other country in Europe to join in as well.

Sadly for Blair and his band of ministers, there are several major problems to all these grand ideas. Firstly is the simple fact that all of the biometric data that is proposed to be harvested will not fit on either the new “biometric” passport, or the proposed ID card. The smart chip simply won’t be big enough to hold the data. Now, one would think that would be enough to cause the British government to retreat a little before breaking a whole cart-load of eggs over itself – but no. The data that won’t fit on the card will be archived for future use. Now, I can see how the police would be very happy to have the fingerprints of an entire nation at its disposal in the fight against crime. But, it is perhaps telling that Stella Rimmington, the ex-head of MI5, sees all this "extra" information as useless in the fight against terrorism. Yes, well...

So, what happens next? Certainly the US will be successful in forcing the rest of the world to adopt new Biometric passports. The purpose of the ID card in the UK, however, is somewhat more questionable. The UK appear to be putting pressure onto Eire in adopting the same ID card idea so as to be able to retain the freedom of entry into the UK that it currently does, important for the Irish because both Eire and the UK have remained outside of the Schengen agreement.

Whilst all this is being discussed and debated, there have been a few steps made toward biometric data on passports. Germany has already announced its own passport, containing a chip with the holders digital photograph on it. No fingerprints, iris prints, DNA or other such data, of course. The UK itself has already committed to issue passports very much like the German one and will be in force from January 2006 – if you are a British overseas resident, that is. Using a 3M system, there will be equipment to digitise your passport photograph and load it onto the smart chip which will be in the passport cover. Exactly like the German one, in fact.