National ID Scheme remarketed

Hats off to Phil Booth of the No2ID campaign for doing the “Emperor’s New Clothes” thing and ‘calling’ Jacqui Smith on her assertion that some people can’t wait to get their hands on a UK ID Card. She may be right, of course. There may indeed be people clamouring to pre-register for an ID Card. There are also some people who can’t wait to get their hands on some cannabis, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for them to do so.

I have probably taken part in more of the consultative process than the average British punter, having been to one of the Crosby Review workshops, a one-day workshop run by Kable on behalf of the DBERR, one of the NIS ‘roadshow’ consultations, one of the workshops run by the Enterprise Privacy Group on behalf of the IPS, and so on and so on…

I can honestly say that in only one instance can I remember anyone saying “the sooner the better, where can I get mine?” – and that was someone who had already rather torpedoed his own credibility by coming out with that old chestnut “If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear… that’s what I always say”. He didn’t quite add “when I was a lad, anyone who had something to hide was taken out and publicly birched…” but I don’t suppose if would take more than a couple of halves of mild before that came out too.

The fact that Phil is unconvinced may have some roots in the Home Secretary’s recent response to that whole consultation exercise. According to the structure of that document, the two most pressing recommendations of those consulted were that the Government should:

– do more to communicate the details of the Scheme;
– do more to explain how the Scheme will benefit businesses.

With respect, the first of those is only a sensible objective if the Scheme is aligned with what people want, rather than what the Government is prepared to tell them. Telling someone something objectionable is not a substitute for making it less objectionable. Not that presentation isn’t important, I hasten to add. In case you’re in any doubt about the importance of positive PR, here’s an indication of the perception “out there” of UK public sector performance as a data custodian. I’m not saying this perception is accurate in every respect, but unfortunately when one’s talking about perception, that isn’t the critical factor.

And the second is precisely the question which the Crosby Review was established to examine. Its conclusion? That there was no clear and overriding commercial case for businesses to use the Scheme, except as a very clearly circumscribed service to establish the uniqueness of a given citizen. It is somewhat depressing to see how little effect that finding has had either on the structure and purpose of the Scheme, or with the marketing communications coming out about it.

Even in those areas where communication with the citizen is being beefed up (for instance, with this white paper introducing the scheme and explaining how it will work in practice), some of the old thinking and old fallacies seem to persist. A case in point: the first working example the paper gives is of a young woman going out for a drink in the evening and being invited to prove that she is over 18. She happily hands over her ID card, and is “relieved that she no longer has to hand over documents with her address on them to prove her age.”

Except that this elegantly glides past a couple of salient facts:

– first: she has not simply proved that she is over 18: she has revealed her date of birth, which is not at all the same thing. What the Scheme giveth with one hand, the Scheme taketh away with the other;

– second: if (unusually among her compatriots) this young lady wishes to prove her age without disclosing her address, she could of course make use of her passport, her driving licence, or – anticipating the objection that she perhaps does not have either of these – her “Prove It” card or (taking a shocking leap into the 21st century) her Equifax Over 18 digital credential.

There’s only one interpretation one can realistically put on the Home Office documents, and those are that the substance of the scheme remains the same, the policy thinking more or less unaltered by the Crosby report, the consultation process and several years’ experience of how public sector data management can go wrong. Only the presentation seems to have changed.