A new ‘virtual’ ID Card scheme and Identity Assurance database are quietly being introduced by stealth as the government presses forward with plans to make all public services ‘digital by default’.
Just like under Blair’s scheme, the new virtual ID Cards will not be mandatory (yet) but will be required to access all government services including benefits, tax assessment, the NHS, and possibly even services provided by local councils.
Whilst for most people the new ID system will be ‘virtual’, meaning that it will be accessed by smart phones or internet connections, tender documents suggest that those who are not online may be forced to use physical ID cards to access services.
Defenders of the new scheme claim this is nothing like the ID Card and National Identity Register introduced by the last government because information will be held by private companies and not centrally by the state. However with Theresa May desperately trying to introduce new powers to snoop on emails and social networking, the idea that government will not be able to access the new database is beyond naive. All the involvement of the private sector means is that unaccountable private sector sharks will also have access to personal information.
With companies like facebook rumoured to be involved, and the recent awarding of an ‘identity assurance’ contract to credit reference company Experion, this suggests that data-harvesting could go way beyond anything contemplated by Blair’s band of government busy-bodies.
Somewhat predictably it will be benefit claimants and disabled people who are used as guinea pigs for the new database. Claims for both Universal Credit and the upcoming replacement disability benefit Personal Independence Payment, will be the first benefits to be digital by default.
Recently the DWP announced contractors to manage the ‘identity assurance’ database for benefit claimants which includes the aforementioned Experion, along with arms company Cassidian.
What has not been reported is that one of the contracts placed out to tender was for a face to face identity verification service. If this doesn’t mean ID Cards then it’s difficult to know what it could mean.
Tender documents also reveal that DWP access to the database is being built into the new provision stating that ‘data attributes’ may be “be requested by the DWP and provided by the service provider: e.g. verified telephone numbers, history of addresses, etc. The initial service should also meet the following requirements:”
All benefit claimants, including those on in work benefits such as tax credits and housing benefits, will be need to choose an ‘identity assurance’ provider which will then allow them to access Universal Credit. 21 million people are expected to be affected by the change to the benefits system and entered onto the Universal Credit database – which is the most extensive data gathering system ever devised by a government.
Universal Credit will not just collect details of income on a monthly basis, but will contain details on health conditions, employment, job seeking activity, housing, family make up, bank details, childcare, tenancy agreements, and personal information such as dates of birth and National Insurance numbers. There have even been recommendations that this database could be linked to NHS prescription records (PDF), whilst the launch of Universal Jobmatch is giving Jobcentres unprecedented access to spy on how and when claimants look for work.
People on Self-Assessed tax are likely to be the next group who will be forced to sign up to an ‘identity assurance’ provider to fill in tax returns. Eventually this will be extended to cover all government services, including the NHS (PDF). Signing up to ‘Identity Assurance’ will soon be necessary even to make an appointment with your GP if this Government get their way.
The feeble excuse for this mass data gathering operation is that people currently have to use different passwords to access different online services. This flimsy justification falls apart simply by pointing out that people are well within their rights to use the same password to sign up for different things – a hardly unique concept amongst internet users.
The real reason is a long term plan to make thousands of public sector workers redundant by abolishing any face to face relationships between citizens and the state. And of course, with government eavesdroppers GCHQ having been involved in designing the Universal Credit system, the spooks will have a field day as they have new powers to trawl through huge amounts of detail about people’s very personal lives.
There are even plans to use ‘voice biometrics’ as part of identity assurance, meaning providers, and ultimately the state, will have access to the individual voice print of everyone using the system. Whilst this technology is untested on anything like this scale, this could, in theory, be used to track people’s phone conversations simply by scanning the airwaves for individual ‘voice prints’.
Before they became the enabling arm of the Conservative Party many Lib Dems were quick to point out that it’s not just what a current government might do with a national identity database, but any future administration. Whilst it may seem difficult to conceive of a worse government than this one, as the neo-liberal bandwagon rolls on ever more authoritarian measures will be necessary to stamp out resistance to the suffering caused by naked capitalism. A free market does not mean free people.
And that’s why Big Brother is back, just this time hidden beneath a cloak of Tory deception and Lib Dem spinelessness.