Thought for the day: An identity crisis for the government

The introduction of identity cards in the UK need not be indicative of a Big Brother state, says Simon Moores. It may just be...

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The introduction of identity cards in the UK need not be indicative of a Big Brother state, says Simon Moores. It may just be another massive and expensive government project about to go wrong.



If a leaked government document is to be believed, the arrival of national identity cards is just around the corner.

I have been in two minds about the value of such a card for a long time now. There is that natural suspicion of government motives, after all, as a society we trust our own government less than any of our European neighbours and mostly for good reason.

Can we trust them to use a comprehensive citizens' database in a way that protects our dwindling civil rights, or will such information, as the privacy lobby fears, be used as one more tool in an inevitable march towards a more tightly controlled society?

That’s one argument and it’s not one that appears to worry most of the population. What does worry people is that there are a third more National Insurance numbers in circulation than there should be and that there is no longer any form of identification, which even partly guarantees that you happen to be John Smith and not Osama Bin Laden.

The technologists quite correctly point out that any identity card is only as good as the information given by a trusted third party that validates the owner of the card, so it remains to be seen how government is going to tackle this problem.

After all, a National Insurance number, a driving licence and a passport are less reliable than a letter from your mother, so tackling the question of identity in 21st century Britain presents a real problem.

When I attended the Digital Identity Forum in London at the end of last year, the audience, which represented banks, suppliers and government, were struggling to arrive at a useful solution to the identity dilemma.

After all, as one presentation from an inner London council illustrated, not everyone today has a "Christian name", a middle name, and a surname. A Mr Mohammed Abdullah Osama could appear as any combination of these names on a local authority database and there have been numerous examples of families being given more than one home as a consequence of errors creeping into the system.

There is another reason why identity cards have taken so long to arrive. Government is also faced with a dilemma of its own. If everyone is issued with an identity card or a stronger form of identity to cross-check against National Insurance numbers, then it becomes much simpler, over time, to determine how many people are present in this country illegally. This is a statistic that they would rather not face.

When they appear, these cards will, apparently, cost each of us £40 and it won’t be long before there’s a roaring trade in counterfeiting the new gold standard of British identity. Let’s be honest, investigative reporting has demonstrated that the passport, driving licence and National Insurance system are hopelessly compromised, so why should this be any different?

While the Home Office appears to be convinced by the technology at its disposal, I’m not convinced by the Home Office, and I very much doubt that many of our readers are either.

People may worry about the limited information on an identity card being made freely available across government departments, but Mr Average Citizen has nothing to worry about and the police will have a more efficient means of checking the identity of fans before a Millwall game.

As for anything more sophisticated, we have to remember that this will be a massive and expensive government IT project and I for one, can’t think of a single massive and expensive government IT project and especially one involving security of any kind, that has worked without being dogged by massive and expensive failure. Over to you then, Mr Blunkett.

What do you think?

Is David Blunkett's ID card scheme doomed to failure?  Tell us in an e-mail >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the website. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.

Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies and specialises in the areas of eGovernment and information security.

For further information on Zentelligence and its research, presentation and analyst services visit

This was last published in July 2003



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