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Privacy Law and Policy Reporter

Privacy Law and Policy Reporter (PLPR)
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Waters, Nigel --- "UK ID Card Proposals" [1995] PrivLawPRpr 76; (1995) 2(6) Privacy Law & Policy Reporter 116

UK ID Card Proposals

Home Office (UK) Identity Cards - A Consultation Document (Green Paper) Cmd 2879 HMSO London

Data Protection Registrar (UK) Identity Cards - Putting You in the Picture, June 1995

In May 1995, the UK Government's Home Office published a Consultation Paper on Identity Cards. This is the latest in what seems to have become a regular periodic burst of enthusiasm for ID cards (about every five years), usually associated with a pitch for the 'law and order' vote. In the paper, the government points to a number of separate initiatives already underway:

  1. The introduction of photo driving licences.
  2. The introduction of a machine-readable payment card for social security benefits and pensions.
  3. The phasing out of the British visitors passport.

These developments are put forward, unconvincingly, as reasons for re-considering the question of ID cards. The paper suggests a range of benefits and potential uses for cards, while disadvantages, including privacy concerns, are given only a brief mention. A range of options is canvassed:

  1. Doing nothing other than the existing separate initiatives.
  2. A voluntary proof of identity card, possibly combined with the driving licence.
  3. A multi-purpose 'smart' card.
  4. A compulsory card with accompanying national registration system.

The issue is raised as to whether it would be mandatory to carry a compulsory card or produce it on demand, and if so, to whom. Although the consultation paper purports to be neutral as between the various options, the minister responsible, the Home Secretary, indicated at a conference in June his preference for a compulsory card.

The paper invites submissions by 30 September. However, the UK's Data Protection Registrar, Elizabeth France, issued her own information paper on identity cards in June, inviting comments to assist her in preparing her response to the government. In what can be seen as a surprising move, given her background as a Home Office official, Ms France's paper is an excellent and balanced summary of the issues surrounding identity cards, presented clearly and attractively. It also contains her preliminary view, which effectively challenges the adequacy of the case for ID cards presented in the government's paper. Ms France rightly asks why ID cards are proposed and what problem(s) they seek to address, and notes that the Green Paper leaves the purposes to be deduced from the various options. She also articulates the fears that the uses of a card could inexorably grow beyond any initial limitations - what we know in Australia as 'function creep'.

It remains to be seen what response the government receives to its suggestions, and whether they move to implement some form of ID card in the near future. Similar proposals in the past have been defeated by a combination of public antipathy to the authoritarian overtones, lack of a clear justification, and the cost. The option of a voluntary card can perhaps be seen as a clever device to minimise public concern, while at the same time removing the cost barrier, since it is envisaged that individuals would pay for the card themselves! However, it may be significant that the Social Security minister and some chief police officers have expressed reservations about the value of an ID card from their perspective, although this may be attributed to concern that public opposition to identity cards could spill over into other surveillance initiatives which they see as more important.

Whatever the outcome of this issue in the UK, the associated papers provide a valuable resource for the privacy debate in other countries. The Data Protection Registrar's information paper in particular should be considered essential reading. Copies can be obtained from the Privacy Commissioner's office (Telephone 1800 023 985).

Nigel Waters

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