Last week the Home Office issued a report which estimated that, over the next decade, the cost of running the scheme, in conjunction with a new biometric passport system, would be £5.8bn. Because the Treasury has insisted the scheme must be self-financing, this works out at an average cost of £93 to each card holder.
As if that wasn’t bad enough.
But, according to the LSE’s analysis, a draft section of which has been obtained by The Observer, the true cost of implementing and running the scheme, will be between £12bn and £18bn. This could make the average cost of a card as high as £300 to every adult, unless government departments are prepared to shoulder some of the financial burden.
I do find it somewhat worrying though that arguments against ID cards are being dominated so much by the “too expensive” one. Sure, it’s an easy one to explain, people are always sensitive about money, and it’s true. But concentrate too much on price and you risk letting the government get away with the argument about cards stopping crime and terrorism, raising the dead etc, which they are allowed far too much leeway with already, the standard interview at the moment being along the lines of:
Minister: What’s more, ID cards would be an essential tool in the fight against international terrorism.
Interviewer: Can you explain a bit more about how that will work, Minister?
Minister: Uh, in surveys 80% of people are in favour of ID cards.
Interviewer: Thank you, Minister. And now, in other news, a skateboarding duck.
You can also substitute “identity theft” for “international terrorism” there – everything else will be the same. The point is that if you concentrate too much on cost you run the risk of some sort of deal being made with the Treasury, the cost being hidden somehow, and everybody saying “oh, that’s okay then, go ahead”.
I don’t think “useless” is a hard one to understand, and it combines well with “too expensive”; paying a lot of money for something that doesn’t do what it says on the tin is worse than paying a lot of money for something in general. From there you can move on to arguments about why it is actively bad – “papers please” harassment, and the deeper arguments about privacy, surveillance and database consolidation. “It’s expensive and pointless… and it’s not only pointless, it’s damaging, and here’s why.”
“Papers please” is easy to understand but I have to say that I’ve not seen many clear and short expressions of the latter. Privacy as a principle is easily understood and expressed – “how are my medical records the business of the tax office?” – but people are used to giving up privacy as long as they don’t think it will matter and don’t have it rubbed in their faces. Until you can point to examples and say “Mr Jones was stopped from flying because he was seen at a demo with ‘anarchists’, he’s been treated for depression and he didn’t vote last year” it doesn’t hit home. The principle itself is not good enough.
The database arguments take a while to explain and are fuzzy without details of exactly what the system will entail (though one can certainly come up with some basic problems, again you really need examples to make things stick). I’m not entirely consistent in the way that I explain the consolidation issue, and I deal with databases for a living.
Maybe I’m being pessimistic but, what with the government’s apparent determination to push this through, the complexity of some of the most telling arguments, the insufficiency of media attention to even the relatively easy ones, rebel MPs now backing down, paranoia about dole scroungers and illegal immigrants, the general idea that this is just another store loyalty card and “if you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear”, I can see the system going ahead, even though nobody apart from the government argues for it (and that badly) and plenty of people argue against it. It’s not like people generally want an ID card, but while the British people are very cynical about government proposals it also takes quite a lot to get them to do anything about them. And once the databases and links are in place, they won’t go away.
One can of course place one’s faith in the past performance of government IT contractors and hope that the system will just not work at all, but what will probably happen is that it comes in massively over-budget and late, and sort of works but is full of leaks and flaws, so we have only a slight level of increase in effective state surveillance but a massive level of increase in accidental day-to-day hassle cause by a system being fed incorrect information.