We have been meaning to analyse one of Michael Cross's "Public Domain" articles in the Guardian newspaper for some time:
Thursday January 15, 2004
Anyone arguing that Britain shouldn't repair its railways because a future regime might transport undesirables to death camps by train would be dismissed as a nutter. Yet apparently intelligent people trot out the same argument against proposals to repair the state's outdated data infrastructure.
Always good to set up an imaginary straw man to argue against "reasonably" later on.
These self-appointed guardians
Exactly who appointed Michael Cross as a commentator or pundit , writing, ironically, in The Guardian ? Why is his opinion any more valid than ours or yours ?
say we should oppose the proposed national population register because of the use to which a totalitarian government might put it. Likewise identity cards and, with better reason for concern, DNA databases.
A chilling statistic supports their point. Under Nazi occupation, the Netherlands was three times as efficient as France at rounding up Jews. The difference, according to Edwin Black's IBM and the Holocaust, was that Holland had a population register based on state-of-the-art IT (Hollerith punch card tabulators). France had pieces of paper. By this argument, state inefficiency is the last bastion of freedom.
The government disagrees. In the context of ID cards, David Blunkett last year dismissed opponents as "intellectual pygmies".
Remember this is David "Mastermind" Blunkett, who was recently humiliated on a TV general knowledge quiz, with one of the lowest scores in its history.
What evidence is there that Pygmies are any less intellectual or intelligent than writers for the Guardian ?
That's a little unfair. Some of his opponents are ignorant - claiming, for instance, that Britain has no bill of rights.
Who exactly is claiming that ? It is a scandal that the legal system in the UK is so complicated. We certainly do not have a written constitution or a law of Privacy on the statute books.
Others are inconsistent, combining a Holocaust warning with the claim that the technology wouldn't work.
Does he mean us ? Try a Google search for "ID Cards" "intellectual pygmies" and "IBM and the Holocaust" and you will only find our article on ID Cards. Perhaps Michael Cross has been researching our arguements after all.
Where we point out the impracticalities of "Mastermind" Blunkett's plans it is not to say that, for instance, Biometric technology cannot be implemented at all, simply that it cannot be implemented without a large number of innocent people being seriously inconvenienced, and in some cases having their lives threatened as a result.
But their underlying creed - that government is inherently untrustworthy - has a respectable pedigree.
This is far more established in the US, where hatred of government is by no means confined to gun-toting Arizonans driving unregistered SUVs. It is perhaps best expressed in the minimal state philosophy of the late Robert Nozick, which has had a huge influence on the Bush administration.
So where is the evidence of the closure of US Government departments and the reduction in the number of US Government employees ?
The minimal state has its weak points: adherents seem to be fond of big government when it comes to killing people, but that's beyond the scope of this column. In any case, this is a fringe debate in Westminster realpolitik. Even Margaret Thatcher had to support the welfare state and claim the NHS to be safe in her hands.
Our impression of Michael Cross's "Public Domain" column is that he usually supports the big centralised government information technology bureaucracies and the bloated IT consultancies who feed off them.
Thus Blunkett's pygmies have to carry the torch. In a pluralist democracy, they should be welcome. Possibly their day will come. But they should be honest about what they want, which is the end of the state's role in health and social care.
Now the straw man argument seems to be on drugs.
For a welfare state cannot run efficiently and fairly without a list of customers. It is only by bizarre accident that Britain has never had one.
It is not a "bizarre accident" it is a scandalous history of Government IT and technological incompetence fueled by greed. Given the billions wasted on failed public sector IT projects, why are there no responsible civil servants and private sector managers in jail ?
Please explain how a centralised Biometric ID card is the only possible way of running the NHS ? How will one's iris scan or fingerprint possibly help in filing one's Inland Revenue tax return online via the Government Gateway ?
You cannot seriously hope to convince anybody that a fingerprint scanner or web camera device connected to the USB bus on a Microsoft Windows home or office computer could possibly be secure enough against replay attacks and credentials capture (in other words ID Theft) for secure Biometric Identifier based authentication over the Internet, can you ?
Where is the Public Key infrastructure to give (not sell at ?40 a time) each citizen a Digital Certificate ?
This is unsustainable. It is doubly bizarre to spend billions on e-government without an underlying joined-up infrastructure. The government deserves credit for - belatedly - putting it on the agenda.
There's another reason for getting it right. Public support for the welfare state, for the state itself, depends on it being perceived to be value for money and not open to abuse. A collapse of confidence, amid scares about foreigners swamping the system and criminals running free, would be just the circumstance in which a Spode party could come to power - and set about making the trains run on time to whatever destination it wants.
It is exactly the question of a lack of trust in Government that is at the heart of many privacy campaigners' opposition to ID Cards and other centralised Government databases. Information is power, and we feel that the balance of power is unfairly stacked in favour of petty bureaucrats and jobsworth officials and their outsourced private sector call centre slaves. There are, for instance, no criminal sanctions to prevent abuse of ID Card data under "Mastermind" Blunkett's plans.
There are criminal penalties for currency counterfeiters or for census data abusers, not because of the individual damage that they might do, but because even their minority actions bring the whole system into disrepute and stop a percentage of the public trusting and using the system, thereby negating any benefits for society as a whole.
What is true for currency counterfeiters should also apply to petty officials who overstep the Principles of Data Protection and who abuse or link up their inaccurate databases without the explicit permission of the individual members of the public that they are keeping under surveillance. If they are doing nothing wrong, then they have nothing to fear from criminal penalties, to paraphrase the usual "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" mantra.
Who or what is Spode party and how would Biometric ID Cards do anything except add delays and queues to the running of a railway ?