Tuesday, 22 April 2008

“I am not a number.” Fighting the government over ID cards.

“I am not a number. I am a free man!” The words of Patrick McGoohan as Number 6 in the TV series ‘The Prisoner’. Quite appropriate since I am writing this blog in the hotel in Portmeirion, where the series was filmed.

I say, I say, I say. Why won’t government politicians have photos on their ID cards? Because no one can decide which of their two faces to use. Strong words you might think; but NOT when your team has been slandered by brain-dead ministers simply for publishing the results of your research on ID cards.

In this blog I’m going to tell you about the experience of a team of Information Systems academics at LSE (Gus Hosein, Simon Davies, Edgar Whitley, myself and others) trying to inform public debate on the UK government's ID card proposals. We published our report, The Identity Project, on June 27th 2005. Among the many findings, we gave our cost estimates: between £10 billion and £19 billion over ten years. The government figure was just over £5 billion.

To be honest I personally expect the figure to be much higher, but we stuck on these numbers because they are easily justified using figures obtained from the Home Office itself – not that they are the most reliable of departments, as we have recently discovered. We used their numbers, because we weren’t looking for trouble. But trouble we got. The present British government believes in shooting the messenger with bad news.

Ministers went on the offensive – offensive being the operative word. No less that the then Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, went on the BBC to accuse us of spinning, and leaking material to the press for maximum exposure (like they do.) Tony Blair, the then Prime Minister, attacked us in the House of Commons. Second rate ministers lined up to pour scorn on our Report. Classic Socialism 101: “if you can’t rubbish the message, rubbish the messenger.”

Our figures were “simply mad,” and we were “technologically inept.” Simon Davies, a lead researcher, was singled out, and ‘smeared’ on the Today Programme on Radio 4, and all over the media. The reason? The press had fallen on our figures, to say that ID cards would cost £300 per person; not £93 as the government insisted. And guess what rigorous research gave them £93? A little birdy has told me they got it from a focus group – apparently, £93 is the amount that the market will take. When you stand up to bully-boy politicians you’d be amazed how many little birdies get in touch to dish the dirt.

But nowhere did we actually claim that each person would be charged £300 for their ID card – that was the press. We only gave the total price. There is no way of calculating total costs, because it is impossible to comprehend the consequences: we may know the price of ID cards, of any technology, however, the costs will accrue from here to eternity.

Indeed, I would be the first to admit that the project could end up in profit. If the world’s many other totalitarian regimes are convinced that ID cards are a great idea, then the income from sales could far exceed expenditure. I bet the government is now sorry that they toppled Saddam Hussein – he would have been first in the sales queue. Still … they can always count on the likes of Mugabe, Gadaffi and Kim Il Sung.

Anyway, it was all good knockabout stuff. Prior to the first Commons Vote (June 29th, 2005), the LSE Director, Sir Howard Davies, was telephoned by a senior Civil Servant and asked to pressurize us into withholding our report until after the vote. But Sir Howard, an ex-civil servant himself, had gone native. He came up trumps, publicly rebuking both Prime Minister and Home Secretary in a letter to the Times. The issue was raised at an LSE Governors meeting, where Bob Worcester of MORI waded in. He said his findings showed that whenever the government says one thing, then 83% of the population believes the exact opposite.

We were given the governors’ total backing. They had actually read our report, which our critics obviously hadn’t. If I say so myself, it is an excellent piece of academic work … unlike the Home Office’s response, which was appallingly written, and full of factual errors. I likened it to “a student summer project from a 3rd rate university.” Don’t take my word for it – you can see for yourself: the LSE report, the Home office response, and our response to their response are all on the LSE web site.

Thankfully I work for a university that won’t be intimidated by bully-boys – how many other British universities can say the same? Be quite clear, intellectual freedom is under attack in today’s Britain, and by the very same people who insist that “the innocent have nothing to fear from ID cards.”

Anyway the government needn’t have worried; after a very rough ride, the bill was finally passed by the voting fodder in the Commons on 13th February 2006, albeit with some nominal concessions, and received Royal Assent in March.

This project has fiasco written all over it. I say this not as a privacy advocate, because I’m not one, but as a student of Information Systems; one who subscribes to the cockup theory of history, not conspiracy. This ID card system will be one almighty cockup.

The ID card project, as proposed, is going to be one of the biggest computer systems ever envisaged – far more complex than the NHS system. It’s a disaster waiting to happen. £5.8 billion – don’t make me laugh!

Nevertheless I see silver linings among the dark clouds of ID cards. There’s huge money to be made from this vast gravy train. During the recent Commons vote I was praying for a government win. That may surprise you. I’m a professor of information systems: of course I want to study the Titanic from the drawing board to the iceberg. Of course I want to observe what will be the biggest in a whole line of public sector disasters. {Have there been any successes?} 

And anyway, I’m going to make a good living on the lecture circuit, poking fun at this dog’s dinner of a system. I’ve got at least five years of profit before the mess becomes so obvious that I’ll have to bow out with one final “I told you so."

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