Free Life 20, August 1994, Editorial: Whatever to Hide, Everything to Fear, by Sean Gabb

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From Free Life, Issue 20, August 1994
ISSN: 0260 5112

Whatever to Hide, Everything to Fear 

The Government has just announced its plan to change the format of British Driving Licences.  From July 1996, they are to be issued in credit card size, with magnetic strips and photographs.  Now, I do not propose here to discuss the alleged benefits of this change in itself.  Its true purpose, as all but the Government agree, is to clear the way for a national identity card scheme.

I am astonished that anyone can think this a good idea - especially on the justifications normally offered.  It is not true that identity cards will prevent the growth, let alone reduce the present incidence, of crime and terrorism.  In this country and in others, the common, repeated experience has been - that any document a government cares to produce can be perfectly reproduced by criminals.  It is so now with banknotes and passports.  It will be so in the future with “smartcards”.  Indeed, those politicians now assuring us of how secure from forgery the new documents will be are either profoundly ignorant of digital technology or are lying.

The fact is that identity cards, however made, will simply raise the costs of committing a crime.  Anyone who seriously doubts this claim should take a trip across the Channel.  In most of Europe, people have for generations had to produce a wad of documents before they could so much as cash a postal order.  They have simultaneously enjoyed the sort of crime rates that make England look like a temperance meeting.

The real victims of an identity card scheme will be us, the honest public.  Increasingly what remains of our freedom is held less by legal right than by the simple inconvenience for the authorities of taking it away.  Identity cards will go far to removing that inconvenience.  They will allow the authorities to bring us under an inspection - and therefore a control - that they have not so far been brave enough to try imposing by Act of Parliament.

I hear the cry - "Those who have nothing to hide have nothing to fear".  But is there one of us whose life is a completely open book?  Is there one of us who does not have a secret - no matter how trivial it may seem to others - that it would be shameful to have known or knowable?  Is there one of us who does not have a habit - smoking, for example - that it might sometimes be useful to conceal from those in authority?

One of the main benefits seen by Victorian liberals of migration to the towns was the greater individuality made possible by living among large numbers of other people.  Few of the migrants behaved, or wanted to behave, like Tiberius in his bath.  Even so, they relished their escape from the dull conformity of village life - a conformity maintained under the watchful eye of Squire and Parson.  It is this individuality that is now under threat from identity cards.

It is a threat made still greater by digital technology.  In the past, it was too expensive to watch entire populations.  Everyone could be given an identity card, and be made to produce it at almost every step for its details to be recorded.  But this generated a mountain of paper.  Everyone could be made to feel a certain pressure to conform; but only known dissidents could expect to have their paper trails diligently followed.  In the future, it will be possible to watch everyone all of the time - because surveillance will have been computerised.  It will be possible to gather up every scrap of information on us, official and unofficial, and make this instantly available to any authorised person.

Here is the answer to the cry:  Everyone has something to hide, and therefore everything to fear.  This is an answer that we must continually make, if we are to win the argument over identity cards.  We must demonstrate that welcoming them falls into the same class of acts as sending our letters unsealed through the past, or giving sets of our housekeys to the police, together with written leave to enter without request or warrant.

Can we do this?  I am normally a pessimist.  But here is an issue too immediately important for pessimism.  We must do it.  We shall do it.

Sean Gabb