Thursday, March 06, 2008

ID Updates: Kill the Symbol and Go for the Pincer Move

Meanwhile, in the murky and dangerous Identity-Register Realms, Jacqui Smith is announcing some changes to the scheme, namely:

  • Non-EU immigrants will need them to register this year

  • "Sensitive" airport job-workers (that's a sensitive job, not a sensitive worker) will need to register next year

  • Students will be able to opt in to registration in 2010

  • People can choose to register when they get a biometric passport from 2011-12-ish

Kill the Symbol, Kill the Imagination

So the timetable has been pushed back a bit, and there's some "relinquishment" on the enforced nature. The Register, Ideal Government blog and Tomorrow's fish and chip paper (amongst many, I'm sure) have some follow-up, while the latter makes an excellent point about the symbolism of the card.

In my mind, this symbolism is something that the anti-ID lot have failed to really push - but not for lack of trying. People with the details, in the know, understand that the card is just what you carry (just like a bank card is not your bank account). The real danger is the database behind that card. But for many others, it is the card which has been handed down from history. It is the card which is the tangible, touchable, carryable item. In other words, we have no "physical" experience of biometrics or databases - the 2 things that are really important here - on a societal level. Because we lack this experience as a nation, and because both biometrics and "data" is generally "hidden" to us, it's difficult to get our heads around just what they mean when controlled by a centralised actor.

Maybe we need to start thinking about the database in terms of large Stasi-style filing systems. Maybe we need to think of biometrics in terms of something we are permanently attached to - like having our bank card stapled to us for all time. Whatever, we need a new way of relating both to information, and to ourselves. It's no good to think of the card as the system any more, and the government know this.

2 Functions Become 1

There are also many thoughts coming out of what Jacqui Smith says. What defines a "sensitive" job? Is it the work? Or is it the work, the opportunities, and the kind of people being employed to do that job? It's interesting to see who the government "trust" at this point. Why not start off by eating your own dog food, for example - make MPs carry identity cards, have them register first. If you want to prove there's nothing to fear, then go right ahead and engage with that "accountability" thing you know our form of democracy is supposed to run on.

However, what's most interesting to me is the juxtaposition of workers in "sensitive" jobs, and students as "early adopters". The theory is that students will want ID cards because they want access to services most - bank accounts/loans, pubs and clubs (one assumes, although alcohol + judiciously important documents is always good for a not-so-cheap laugh), and so on.

(Now is it just me, or have our students basically become a dumping ground for all the leftover exploitation we need to "run" things? This will be my next post, I think.)

Practicalities of studentships aside (I never had any particular problem getting access to banks' money - they tended to throw it away and wait for it to trickle back in triplefold), it's these 2 areas of focus which show just how "mixed up" government thinking on this scheme is. To get back to the old question of "Well, what the Hell is this for?", the answer it seems is, "Everything!". Security and fun with living! To stop you doing things and to let you do things, all at the same time. (Of course, you don't necessarily get a say in which things you get to do or not do.) If I get one, does that make me privileged? Or suspect?

The answer is both. No, wait. The answer is that "privilege" and "suspicious" are no longer based on what we're used to - on what the individual wants or learns them to be. "Privilege" and "Suspicious" are, under an ID system, completely in the hands of they who control the technology. "Privilege" and "Suspicious" disappear to be defined purely in terms of what the thought of the day is. They could be opposites one day, and identical the next ("Congratulations! You are privileged to be being monitored!"). And yes, theoretically the government answers to the public. But a) answers take up to 4 years to come along, and b) there's only one answer for the entire country.

That's not decentralisation, that's aggregation, normalisation, the middle ground.

The ID system has shifted, like a slippery chimaera changing its nightclothes. It's more dangerous now - the people who care about their privacy are no longer the target, until it's too late. Those who are targeted would be shooting themselves in the foot if they complained. The war is being fought on two fronts, neither of which are the original.

Our move, I guess.

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