Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Absolute power corrupts? Oh, absolutely!

As the ID Bill trundles inexorably on, we are finding out the cost of freedom. About £30 each, the charge to be imposed by the government on those applying for a card they are legally obliged to have. And legally obliged to replace whenever they move house. For some people, this hardly matters, since they are rich and have stable jobs and live in one place. For poor families, moving more frequently, this is a significant additional cost. But at least it will keep us safe.

The true cost of the cards is a bit higher: initial government estimates had put it at about £80, but it's now figured to be £300. So every time someone moves house, not only will they have to pay out, the government will too, spending tax money. But at least it will keep us safe.

One scene you don't see on CSI or Without a Trace, as they search across the criminal records database or look at the interactive street map or 3D model of virtual Miami, is the one where the master-criminal evades justice because someone has input his surname as 'Terry O'Rist' rather than Terrence O. Wrist. The government has cited as one of the benefits of ID cards that it can bring together all the data already held separately by various departments and agencies. So not only can we catch terrorists, we can fine them for not having a TV licence, and reclaim some tax credits, like those from people who spent money PAID OUT IN ERROR BECAUSE THE COMPUTER SYSTEM WASN'T WORKING PROPERLY. But at least it will keep us safe.

The trouble with wide-ranging arbitrary powers is not that it criminalises everyone. States wielding absolute powers have not all been draconian. For all the idiosyncratic power of a Roman emperor, his writ only really extended to the court. His plans, however mad, for the millions of citizens could only be carried out by his subordinates, whose efficiency and keenness depended on their view of the wisdom of the policy. Even in feudal states, where serfs belonged to their lords, tyranny was limited, since serfs could run away to other masters, or to towns, if it got too bad, and although their lords might hope for support from their peers, class solidarity seldom overcame personal interest. Even East Germany, where I understand 25% of the population was employed by or informants for the secret police, people slipped through. There was plenty of information, but no way to manage it. There is a paradox within Orwell's vision of 1984; even if surveillance was focused on the Party members, the Ministry of Truth employed a lot of people, who needed to be watched by another Ministry of Truth. So I do not believe that suddenly the government will micro-manage the entire population. No. It too will focus. It will focus on the poor, the black, the immigrant, the excluded. But at least it will keep us safe.

Now there are those who say that identity theft is an established part of terrorist operations, and therefore fake ID cards will be manufactured, which may not match the real ones but will be better than nothing. And there are those who say that the July 7 bombers were UK citizens and would no doubt have had ID cards anyway. And there are those who say that criminalizing the excluded does little to make them less excluded. And there are those who say that the government's record on data collection and the creation of large computer systems is appalling. And there are even those who say that pretending that the costs have been accurately estimated and will not eat significantly into spending money on more useful things is a deliberate attempt to side-step the issue. I'm one.

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