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Tuesday, 19 November, 2002, 10:59 GMT
ID cards: civic dream or Orwellian nightmare?

When's an ID card not an ID card? Perhaps when it's an "entitlement card". Are we stepping closer to a Big Brother-style society?
What's in a name? If you call a piece of plastic with your photo and personal details on it an ID card, you are halfway to summoning up the Orwellian image of Big Brother.

On the other hand, if you call it an entitlement card, you are in tune with the vision of Tony rather than Eric Blair - an advocate of a society based on rights and responsibilities. So, who wants the cards to be introduced and why?

The BBC's adaptation of George Orwell's 1984
Is the 1984 prophecy of George Orwell (aka Eric Blair) coming true?
Last July, the government issued a consultation paper on entitlement cards and invited responses to be submitted by 10 January 2003.

So far, around 1,200 replies have been received at the Home Office. Of those who support entitlement cards, the majority see the biggest advantage as the ability to access heath-related services without having to produce a hundred different documents.

This enthusiasm appears to be linked to a belief that many recipients of services are getting benefits to which they are not entitled. No prizes for guessing that the finger is pointed most frequently at immigrants.

Police checks

Clearly there are vested interests rooting for cards to be introduced. Even though the carrying of a card would not be compulsory, the police believe it would make their job easier if they could check a person's identity in the street, say, using a hand-held reader.

The banks - mindful that identity fraud costs the economy more than 1.3 billion a year - would like to see a more uniform means of identification so long as it is totally secure.

Aslyum seekers being searched at Calais
Illegal immigrants would be one target of the cards
And, of course, immigration officials would have a more robust weapon against illegal working if they had the right to check a universal entitlement card.

Under much the same pressures, the last Conservative government came close to introducing ID cards. The 1996 Queen's Speech promised a draft bill on a voluntary card based on the photo driving licence.

The 1997 general election scuppered that plan though, in truth, the cost implications might well have done for it in any case.

The Home Office says the cost of introducing an entitlement card would be between 1.3 and 3 billion - the higher estimate would be for a card incorporating state-of-the-art iris or fingerprint recognition.

Picking up the cost

But since the scheme would be self-financing, we would all have to fork out up to 15 more for a driving licence or passport, for example. Since the cost of a passport has only just risen, would we consider it money well spent ?

You don't have to swallow the premise of the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise movie, Minority Report, to know that chip-based technology is developing at such a rate that things which were impossible even five years ago are now within grasp.

Tom Cruise in Minority Report
Minority Report's sci-fi could soon be sci-fact
However, many of the respondents to the government's consultation paper are imbued with a healthy dose of British scepticism and wonder, in the light of a string of Whitehall computer fiascos, whether the Home Office is up to the job of introducing around 40 million entitlement cards.

It's a fair point, though the success of electronic tagging and the introduction of terminals in around 40 prisons linking them to the Police National Computer prove that not everything technological is a disaster as soon as the bureaucrats get their hands on it.

Home Secretary David Blunkett - a fervent advocate - says entitlement cards will help the needy access services from which some are wrongly excluded at the moment.

Opposition parties and civil libertarians believe they will divide further an already fractured society and make us all - in the words of Liberty - "suspects not citizens". You have until 10 January 2003 to have your say.

You can send your views to: Entitlement Cards Unit, Home Office, 50 Queen Anne's Gate, London SW1H 9AT; or by e-mail:

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04 Oct 02 | Technology
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