Tuesday 7 March 2023

Just Say No To Digital ID

In February, former PM Tony Blair and ex-Tory leader William Hague called for every British citizen to receive digital ID cards as part of a ‘technological revolution’. They made their case in A New National Purpose: Innovation Can Power the Future of Britain, a 21,000-word report published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. As Hague proclaimed on Radio 4’s Today programme at the time, the UK must ‘redesign the state around technology’.

What he really meant was that British citizens should redesign their lives around a ‘papers, please’ state – updated for the digital era, of course. Written in technobabble, the report has all the charm of a gendarme. Make no mistake: this renewed call for ID cards poses an insidious threat to our civil liberties.

The report contains plenty of upbeat guff about science and technology. Then it gets to the section advocating digital ID. ‘Everything from vaccine status to aeroplane tickets and banking details are available on our personal devices’, claim Blair and Hague (ignoring the two million who cannot afford home- or mobile-internet use). They write that it’s ‘illogical’ that each citizen’s public records are not available on those devices, too. And so they want a single digital-ID system for all UK residents – a digital wallet that would allow citizens to prove ‘not only who they are, but also their right to live and work in the UK, their age and ownership of a driving licence [and] credentials issued by other authorities, such as educational or vocational qualifications’.

This is far from a new idea. Blair infamously tried and failed to bring in ID cards while he was in government. Then, in September 2020, he gave the plan a digital makeover – calling for a new digital ID in the fight against Covid. In 2021, Matt Warman, a Conservative MP and then minister for digital infrastructure, enthused about ‘digital-identity solutions, enabling people to prove who they are or something about themselves easily and securely’.

Why push for digital ID again so soon? Perhaps Blair and Hague sense that the technocratic Rishi Sunak will be more amenable to their suggestions. Their article in The Times, laying out their case, waxes lyrical about how technology can ‘transcend partisan politics’. We’re told digital ID will make the state more efficient, with no thought given to the consequences a centralised ID system would have for our civil liberties.

Don’t be fooled. This is not simply about having a ‘cheaper, easier and more secure’ means to access something like state benefits. In principle, a digital-ID regime means that anyone can be asked at any time to give an account of themselves to a nosy representative of the state.

Blair and Hague are playing on the current crisis of UK public services, dressing up their repressive measures as some sort of solution. They even argue that digital ID could help the government move to ‘a more proactive model [of public-service provision], meeting people’s needs before they apply for a service, tailoring the services and support they are offered to their individual circumstances, and reducing administrative burdens on both individuals and the public sector’. To understand how this might actually work, it’s worth recalling the recent proposal of ‘ levelling up’ secretary Michael Gove to deduct benefits from parents whose kids skip school.

Most people are not buying Hague and Blair’s digitopia. While society has embraced new technology, the public remains sceptical about ID cards. No fewer than five Labour home secretaries failed to persuade us of their merits. And the reasons for people’s lack of enthusiasm persist. We are not a papers-carrying society. Given the experience of the past few years, concern about giving the state more power to track or limit our movements is eminently sensible. Plus, many will worry about the system’s vulnerability to internet outages and hacks.

Blair and Hague’s campaign for digital ID may look like a desperate cry for attention from two discredited has-beens. But with technocrats presiding over both sides of the House of Commons, the scheme could well find a receptive audience in Westminster. We must oppose digital ID with all the force we can muster.