Friday, July 01, 2005

Identitetskorter (that's Identity Cards in Swedish)


I say it in Swedish because this letter appeared in today's edition of that peculiar mix of genuine news headlines and Big Brother updates that you wouldn't pay for if it had a cover charge, but luckily it's free: Metro:

"I am so tired of people compaining about these cards and very curious as to why they cannot see the obvious benefits of them [...] I am from Sweden and have lived here since 1998. In Sweden, we have had ID cards for as long as I can remember and I have never felt as though my rights have ever been infringed. We are not obliged to carry an ID card but not doing so makes life quite difficult. We pay approximately £30 for the card and it lasts for ten years, so it is not hugely expensive. We use the card to prove our age when buying alcohol and when entering bars and clubs.

"Most importantly, we use it when we use or debit or credit cards. It is not possible to pay with a card in any shop without showing a matching ID card. This has created a society that is almost free of card fraud. In my seven years in London, I have had my credit card stolen and used. This would not have been possible if the thief had been asked to produce an ID card to prove he was the rightful owner of that card. ID will protect you. If you remember that, the fee for it might not seem like such a huge sum of money.

Sarah Evers, London E10"

Now, I'm fond of the Swedes. I used to have a Swedish girlfriend, and I've been over there many times. I can attest to the truth that ID cards are used for the purposes Sarah Evers mentions. But her letter really is an exercise in missing the point. She ignores several key facts:

  • Swedish ID cards are simpler than the card the British government is proposing to introduce. As I recall, they do not contain the biometric information (iris scans, facial contours, fingerprints, etc.) proposed for the British cards. There is less information to be collected about an individual; therefore less room for error when reading the card.

  • As Sarah Evers says, the card only costs £30 for ten years - way short of the predicted cost of the British card, even using the government's own figures. And the British cards could need updating every five years.

  • The Swedish card is issued along with the person's personnummer (personal number). This acts as an all-in-one identification number, combining the equivalent of the NHS number, National Insurance number, which we have in this country. The ID card is not an additional document, as it would be in this country.

  • Personal data is protected by law in Sweden. The data cannot legally be passed to anyone other than relevant authorities. No such protection is guaranteed in the British system (the government has had to deny that the identity register would be sold to private companies, but the Home Office is known to have been considering such a scheme). The culture in Sweden, an open society where resources and services are considered to be everyone’s right, is different from that of the UK, where you have to prove your ‘worthiness’ to access things which should be one’s right (eg healthcare).

  • Swedish ID cards are issued by local authorities, not a central national body (although the Swedish government is considering moving to national registration).

  • Sarah Evers claims that she could not have had her credit card used when stolen. True, unless the thief had also stolen her ID card and doctored it (or forged one of his own). Is she saying that’s impossible? Harder, yes, but surely not impossible?

  • She’s probably also unaware of cases of mistaken identity in Sweden, such as the woman whose son was taken away from her on the grounds that he was a drug abuser, because someone else had been using her personnummer (source here).

Assuming her letter isn't another New Labour plant ('Sarah Evers' doesn't sound like a very Swedish name, but one Swede in six has a non-Swedish parent, so there are all kinds of names over there), this is a valiant, no doubt well-meaning, but utterly flawed defence of this government's arrogant scheme.

A useful article contrasting the British and Swedish positions can be found here.

And let’s not forget that even the most secure security systems are vulnerable to hacking, theft and forgery, as reported here (registration required).


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