I haven't been reading The Independent so much since they had the cheek to have a column about how to live off £1 a week just as they raised their price to £1, but I think today is the first time they've actually taken a stand over ID cards.
They seem to have taken the safe measure of not kicking the government until they're down - now that the European Court have declared that it is illegal to hold someone's DNA if they're found innocent.
Since they're planning to hold all our DNA, the European Court have evidently made quite a wide implication. Good for them! I'm used to hearing that Europe is a nuisance, foisting all sorts of silly laws on us. On this occasion, they said something that needed saying.
What might be the consequences if everybody's DNA is held on a database? Hard to say. No other country has ever done such a thing. I think most people are hoping and assuming "nothing" - I wish I was that comfortable. I don't for a moment imagine they'll be able to organise it or prevent it from getting lost or corrupted (this is a database of 60 million we're talking about here). I'm sure it'll be extremely easy for civil servants to leave it on the train. And easy enough to bribe underpaid workers to hand over convenient details. "I'll tell the boss/the insurance people/your worst enemy that your genetic profile predicts you to be sensitive to cholesterol with risk of you dying young if you don't do/give me this." They'll be storing our medical information too. "Ooooh, so-and-so's had syphillis. I wonder if her boyfriend knows. That's some great gossip. Such-and-such would laugh . . ." Public body data? Could mean anything, and shops already "profile" their customers and might well join in . . . "That woman only spent this much on bread last week. I wonder if she's feeding her children the right stuff. Let's send the social workers round." "This person has some money sitting around and they spend a lot on cinema tickets. So 8pm is a good sort of time to burgle them." "Hey, he was accused of beating someone up when he was 12. He got off, but so what, they don't care about that any more. Let's let the boss know. He can't be allowed to work with anyone vulnerable even if it is 40 years later. Perhaps they'll give me the job instead."
Petty, but easily possible. The main point is that the government are having to account for what they do less and less, and we are expected to account to them more and more. In short, we must trust them with our most private information, while they don't trust or respect us even enough to tell the occasional truth.
I took a look on the BBC page where we can leave our comments and groaned to see the number of people repeating that exhausted mantra, "If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear". Come on. You really believe that? You think that's not what dictators have said in the past? If they want all that information they're going to do something with it.
Would you agree to having a CCTV camera in your bedroom? The police assure you that it'll help catch terrorists, even if you can (don't ask me how) prove you don't sleep with any. They'll share all the footage with people they trust; you won't know who's looking at it. Is that natural? Is that comfortable? Is this a good use of their time? But you have nothing to hide of course. People do sleep together, get undressed, stare out of the window when they should be working, think private thoughts . . . So the police should watch it all, shouldn't they? Privacy is civilisation. People who are not ashamed of their bodies still generally wear clothes.
DNA does not establish intention. There might be a gene for having a long black beard, but as far as I know none for suicide bombing has been discovered yet. The government admit it won't catch terrorists, and that only 2% of benefit fraud is people lying about who they are - almost all is people lying about circumstance. And yet these are still the reasons being given for the cards' introduction.
They claim: "The power will be exercised only in circumstances where the sharing of the information is in the public interest and proportionate to the impact on any person adversely affected by it." Which is directly contradicted by random stop-and-demand-ID-for-no-reason-whatsoever powers given to the police! (Not to mention their old claim that we wouldn't have to carry these cards wherever we go.)
Distrust of the government, lack of logic and potential to abuse aside, the scheme is wrong in principle. "Innocent until proven guilty" is a law with a history spanning centuries, and not for no reason. I don't really fancy the idea of spending the rest of my life proving my innocence for this, that and the other. Saddam Hussein could not prove there weren't any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. (A friend of mine actually said, "It really scares me that they haven't found anything yet, that only proves how clever Saddam must be".) Possibly I could be assumed guilty of all sorts of things I don't even know about. I might mistype a web address and they'll think I went to a dodgy website on purpose. Or they might wonder why I hang around space websites a lot - could it be because I have plans to thwart America's military interest in space? We'll start making ourselves late for things because we've forgotten our ID cards and have to run home for them; we'll avoid buying a bottle of wine or going to a country whose President has failed to flatter our Prime Minister enough lately because it might not look good and get us into trouble.
How soon before they start selling our details to their friends who run the most massive corporations and want to pile us with junk mail or pressure us to buy their products? How long before sick or injured people will be left to die in the street because they don't have any ID on them and may not have medical treatment? How soon before shops are forbidden to serve people without ID cards?
Oh, and they're expensive too. How soon before supermarkets buy ID cards off the government, so we spend the rest of our lives "with Tesco" or whoever, and these supermarkets start running protection rackets to make us pay more and more to be "kept on the register" and "maintain our entitlements"?
How soon before the computers keep getting an error whenever they try to log onto some people (just like some CDs and websites) and these people are written off as no longer existing? How soon two Britains form - those with ID cards and those without; two groups living in different worlds, trading on different currencies, surviving by different means? (I'm not just being hysterical here. My MP agreed with me on that one a few years ago! I won't publish his letter back to me unless he says it's OK, though . . . watch this space.)
Well, George Orwell warned us a long time ago. Mao warned us, by his government estimating that 5% of the country were against him, and therefore 5% of every workplace's employees - no matter of their guilt or innocence - had to be shipped off to the far north. (Source: "To the Edge of the Sky" by Anhua Gao.) I warned you. I demonstrated in Brighton, along with hundreds of others across the country. Videos such as "Taking Liberties" warned you. And they asked at the end: why? Is it the government? The police? Or is it us and our apathy?
Is it that news stories are sold for a profit, and editors and Rupert Murdoch decide what is and isn't "marketable" in a story, and ID cards just failed to look trendy on the packaging? I don't yet know whether a country loses its democracy because of its entire population or because of a few. Steve Biko said, "The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed". Perhaps in ten years' time we'll look back and it'll be clear.
In the meantime, there is a consultation, apparently. That was kind of you, Government! Thank you! Now, why was it NO2ID who told me about it, and not you? Anyway, you can download it here.
One last question. Am I still allowed to write things like this? Do let me know!