UK Citizens Should Take Rishi Sunak’s Pledge Not to Launch Digital ID With a Truckload of Salt

“There are no plans to introduce digital ID. Our position on physical ID cards remains unchanged.” 

These were the words of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s spokesman a couple of days ago. Note the rather unusual use of the word “physical” to describe what is, generally speaking, a non-physical document (digital ID). This has sown all sorts of confusion in a country that is instinctively distrustful of identity cards and where the debate around digital identity is finally seeping into the public arena.

The statement came in response to former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s latest attempt to peddle digital identity, this time alongside former Conservative Party leader William Hague. In a joint letter, the two former politicians said “[e]veryone in Britain should be given a digital ID incorporating their passport, driving licence, tax records, qualifications and right to work,” as the cornerstone of a “technology revolution” in governance.

The digital ID system would be “secure, private [and] decentralised,” yet would also somehow bring together each individual’s data from across all government agencies. “Other countries are forging ahead,” said Hague. For the UK to keep or get ahead, it “has to redesign the state around technology.”

“A Natural Evolution”

While prime minister Blair tried — and ultimately failed — to introduce mandatory physical ID cards. He was also one of the first prominent proponents of digital vaccine passports. As early as June 2020, before any vaccine had reached the market, Blair told the Independent that people would need a form of “digital ID” so they could prove their “disease status” as the world gradually moved out of lockdown. This, he said, is part of a “natural” technological evolution that encompasses more than just COVID-19 vaccines and public health (comment in parenthesis my own).

“It’s a natural evolution of the way that we are going to use technology in any event, to transact daily life (an interesting choice of words given the potential threat the introduction of central bank digital currencies could pose to people’s ability to transact), and this COVID crisis gives an additional reason for doing that.”

A year and a half later, despite the vaccines’ undeniable shortcomings, Blair’s position remains the same. During a panel discussion at the latest World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, he said:

In the end, you need the data: you need to know who’s been vaccinated and who hasn’t been. Some of the vaccines that will come down the line, there will be multiple shots. So [for vaccines] you’ve got to have — for reasons to do with healthcare more generally but certainly for pandemics — a proper digital infrastructure and most countries don’t have that.

A couple of weeks ago, Blair’s eponymous foundation, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (TBIGC) released a report titled “A New National Purpose: Innovation Can Power the Future of Britain.” The report’s seven authors call for “a fundamental re-ordering of our priorities and the way the state itself functions,” which includes the introduction of an all-encompassing digital ID system:

“A well-designed, decentralised digital-ID system would allow citizens to prove not only who they are, but also their right to live and work in the UK, their age and ownership of a driving licence. It could also accommodate credentials issued by other authorities, such as educational or vocational qualifications. This would make it cheaper, easier and more secure to access a range of goods and services, online and in person. A digital ID could help the government to

TBIGC’s Global (i.e. Largely US) Partners

Tellingly, the word “privacy” appears only once in the document, which calls into question just how seriously the report’s authors and endorsers take the potential risks and pitfalls posed by the technological platforms they are hawking.

TBIGC’s partners are largely US based. They include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (quelle surprise!), the Gates Foundation-sponsored Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), Microsoft Philanthropies APAC, Microsoft Philanthropies MEA, the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Washington’s soft power arm, USAID, the Rockefeller Foundation and the US Agency for International Development.

On a positive note, Blair and Hague’s letter has at least kindled a discussion of sorts on one of the most pressing issues of out time, not just in the UK but everywhere. Hopefully, the UK will now have an open, wide-ranging public debate on the issue (though I’m not holding my breath).

Biometric-enabled digital IDs have the potential to make life much more efficient and streamlined. But as Brett Solomon warned in a 2018 piece for Wired magazine, they also pose “one of the gravest risks to human rights that we have encountered.” Perhaps most importantly, they can — and probably will — be used to enable or disable our full and free participation in society, just as the vaccine passports did.

In an editorial for The Independent, Sean O’Grady tore Blair and Hague’s proposal to shreds:

Hague and Blair say they want Prometheus unleashed via the Government Gateway. To which I can only reply: “I’m not convinced, and even if I was, I don’t care for it”

I don’t trust the British state, neither to construct a workable system in the first place, nor to guarantee its privacy and security. I’ve had some experience of the Government Gateway and the NHS database, and, while magnificent in some respects, they’re also flawed.

I can also remember the disastrous NHS IT database scheme that was eventually abandoned in 2013, after £10bn had been spent on it and written off (stretching over the period when Blair and Hague were in government, funnily enough). Not to mention when that civil servant left the tax records of millions of people on a train.

Privacy and System Fragility Risks 

Silkie Carlo of Big Brother Watch told the BBC that the proposed digital ID system “would be one of the biggest assaults on privacy ever seen in the UK.”

There are also serious issues with system fragility, as we are reminded on an almost daily basis. For example, in 2021 a hacker stole the ID credentials of the entire population of Argentina through its ‘National Registry of Persons’, as Daily Record reported:

[The hack] targeted RENAPER, which stands for Registro Nacional de las Personas, translated as National Registry of Persons.

The agency is a crucial cog inside the Argentinian Interior Ministry, where it is tasked with issuing national ID cards to all citizens, data that it also stores in digital format as a database accessible to other government agencies, acting as a backbone for most government queries for citizen’s personal information.

But Blair’s messianic zeal remains undimmed. When asked about people’s fears of ID systems and tech errors, Blair told the BBC:

“If you look at the biometric technology that allows you to do digital ID today, it can overcome many of these problems. And by the way, the world is moving in that direction. I mean, countries as small as Estonia and as large as India are moving in that direction – or have moved.”

Blair tries to create the impression that the government has no alternative but to follow the herd of other national governments that have already adopted digital ID systems, regardless of the risks posed to privacy and other basic freedoms. But Blair has been disastrously wrong about hugely important things before (e.g. Iraq, humanitarian intervention, joining the euro, public finance initiative…), albeit at no cost to himself.

The current occupant of 10 Downing Street is apparently unconvinced by Blair’s arguments. If one is to believe his spokesperson, Rishi Sunak’s government has “no plans to introduce digital ID.” But Brits would probably do well to take this pledge with a truckload of salt, for three main reasons (feel free to add more):

1. We’ve been here before, with the vaccine passports. Many British citizens will no doubt still remember the myriad times members of the Boris Johnson government, including Johnson himself, swore they would never issue vaccine passports. In January 2021, the then-Vaccine Minister Nadhim Zahawi tweeted the following:

Less than nine months later, Zahawi had broken that pledge by confirming plans to introduce a vaccine status certification scheme for entry into large venues. Unlike in many other parts of Europe, the UK’s vaccine passport did not last long, however. On January 19, Boris Johnson took the world by surprise by announcing plans to lift almost all of the “Plan B” measures for England, including the COVID-19 digital certificate. As I noted in Scanned:

The policy u-turn was an act of political desperation by a government brought to its knees by an endless succession of corruption scandals. After so many of Johnson’s cabinet ministers as well as Johnson himself had been caught flouting their own COVID-19 rules, there was only one way to stay standing: to get rid of the rules. But it’s touch and go whether it will be enough.

In the end, it wasn’t. Less than six months later, Johnson and his government had resigned.

2. Digital ID will be needed for the Bank of England’s Digital Pound, which is also currently under development. The UK is one of more than 110 countries exploring the possibility of developing a central bank digital currency — the so-called Digital Pound. As the Financial Times reported in 2021, based on a report from Goldman Sachs, it is all but impossible to envisage a central bank issuing a digital currency that is universally accessible without first launching a population-wide digital identity:

What CBDC research and experimentation appears to be showing is that it will be nigh on impossible to issue such currencies outside of a comprehensive national digital ID management system. Meaning: CBDCs will likely be tied to personal accounts that include personal data, credit history and other forms of relevant information.

As the Goldman Sachs report notes, it’s the broader banking system that is expected to manage the related identity systems and customer-facing relations. This is has already begun to happen in Canada and Australia, as I reported last September:

[T]he news that banks in Australia are leading the roll out of digital identity is… important, since it would suggest that large banks are already carving out a new role for themselves in the newly emerging [CBDC] paradigm. That role will essentially involve managing at least part of the digital identity system.

One of the many reasons why this development is troubling is that the big banks in Australia, like big banks just about everywhere, have been trying to kill off cash for decades, mainly by shrinking their regional networks of banks and closing their ATMs — for obvious reasons: cash operations can account for as much as 10% of total bank operating costs. No more cash would mean no more expensive ATM networks to run, no salaried tellers and no cash vans waiting to be robbed.

Back in the UK, Bob Wigley, the chair of the lobbying group UK Finance, recently called for a digital identity super app.

“This will be the year that we finally persuade the banking system that we need an economic digital identity system, just like the NHS app,” Wigley said. “[It] will be personal and attached to each citizen as we need a wider fully digital economic identity programme.” If the government does not seize the opportunity to produce an economic super app, “the big tech platforms will do it”, said Wigley, adding “we should be designing it”.

Spawned from the merger in 2017 of the British Bankers’ Association, Payments UK, the Council of Mortgage Lenders, the UK Cards Association and the Asset Based Finance Association, UK Finance is far and away the UK’s largest banking trade association. It represents over 300 firms in the UK’s financial services sector, including the country’s biggest banks. Bob Wiggley is the organization’s founding chairman, and is a highly connected figure both in finance and government.

3. Digital ID Systems Are Already Surreptitiously on Their Way in the UK, But They Will Be Provided by the Private Sector (With Some Public Money). Unbeknown to most British people, the UK government is already working on digital identity systems such as the DSIT Digital Identity Programme. But in contrast to the system put forward by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, it will not be an all-in-one unified platform issued by the government.

Instead, private sector companies in the tech and fintech sectors will do most of the leg work. But the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has agreed to pick up the tab for a “substantial proportion” of the costs incurred. As readers may recall, the UK government has also signed a digital trade agreement (DTA) with Ukraine’s tech-dominated government that includes a commitment to share best practices on digital ID. The Ukrainian government is far ahead of many of its European counterparts in the area of digital governance, and USAID has committed to help export the model to other countries.

The UK government is also in the process of establishing the parameters for regulation — the so-called “digital identity & attributes trust framework” — and real-world applications for digital ID. It has also unveiled a proposed digital government identity verification system under the banner “GOV.UK One Login”. The new system will replace the plethora of existing ways people log into government websites to access public services online.

Digital verification is not the same thing as digital identity though they are closely related and arguably lead to the same outcome:

Big Brother Watch warns this could give the government a blank cheque to share the personal information of millions of users between government departments. At the same time, a prominent City of London financier has predicted that the private sector is preparing to launch an “economic digital identity super app.”

In other words, digital ID is already on its way in the UK, just not quite in the form proposed by Blair’s foundation. There is one silver lining, however: at least now debate on the issue is beginning to filter into the public arena. But time is of the essence.

UK citizens have until March 1 (i.e., tomorrow) to respond to a public consultation on the government’s proposed digital identity verification system. Suffice to say, the consultation was not heavily publicised by the government nor covered in any depth, if at all, by the media, so most members of the British public are none the wiser. For UK-based NC readers, there is still a small but rapidly closing window of time to make your feelings known. Big Brother Watch provides further details, including a template letter, here. 

 

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17 comments

  1. The Rev Kev

    ‘One of the many reasons why this development is troubling is that the big banks in Australia, like big banks just about everywhere, have been trying to kill off cash for decades, mainly by shrinking their regional networks of banks and closing their ATMs’

    Got that right. We moved near to this small, country town about thirty years ago and when we did, we had three bank branches and there were businesses that acted as bank agencies. Two of the banks were from the Big Four banks here in Oz. One of the major banks – Westpac – closed down their branch and moved to a booth at the back of one of the local video stores (when we had them) and eventually to the back of a coffee store before disappearing. Then a few years ago, the branch of the other one of the big banks – the NAB – just shut down. That was bizzare that as this region is a farming district so god knows how many farmers had their business through that branch. I guess those farmers were told to go download the bank’s app to their mobile or something. And at least one of those banks no longer has an agency in that town. That leaves one bank that appears to be staying but if they ever shut down, the nearest banks is about 40 minutes drive from here. Oh brave new world…

    Reply
    1. Stephen Masters

      Similar here,- also regional Oz farming community. Major bank branches have left leaving behind one ATM which charges to see your balance and withdraw your own cash. A credit union (community bank) has been established but loss of other banks costs employment and range of services. Now 100km round trip to attend a major bank branch.

      Reply
  2. flora

    ” a digital ID incorporating their passport, driving licence, tax records, qualifications and right to work,”

    Provided by the private sector, said sector being in charge of all your private personal data and able to sell it or modify it at will. Of course the private sector will spend whatever it takes to make their platforms hacker-proof. (You caught the satire in that last sentence. / ;)

    The UK seems determined to make itself irrelevant in the long run. One world govt, run by who or what, here we come. / ;)

    Reply
    1. ambrit

      Oh flora, get with the game plan! It is now no longer “One World Government.’ Instead, it is “One World Management Company.”
      Stay compliant consumer!

      Reply
  3. Hayek's Heelbiter

    Just curious. Why is anybody still paying the slightest bit of attention to that war criminal?
    Also, once digital ID is implemented in Great Britain, how long will NC endure in the UK before it is declared of being a spreader of “misinformation” and blocked.

    Reply
    1. ambrit

      To the contrary. Sites such as NC will be tools to identify the “non-compliant” members of the consumer class.

      Reply
  4. David

    I think a lot of confusion has been caused by the fact that the UK (and the Anglo-Saxon world more generally) has no experience of the physical ID cards which are in general use in the rest of the world, and consequently neither the advocates nor the opponents seem to understand that there are different technologies and different functions involved. For example, one of the critics in the article talks about the NHS database, and another about the hacking of an Argentinian system, although neither has anything to do with the argument here. There seem to be many different ideas about even what a “digital identity” is (government departments in many countries share information as a matter of course anyway.)

    This is how it works in most of Europe. Every citizen has a National Identity Card. Most people carry them all the time, but it’s not compulsory. Non-citizens usually have a residence permit of some kind: in EU nations it’s optional for EU citizens and compulsory for non-citizens. Mine has a photograph and my date of birth and date of issue on it. It functions as a universally-accepted proof of your identity, under more dramatic circumstances such as a traffic accident, but more mundanely in writing a cheque, collecting a package from the Post Office or signing a legal document or credit agreement. With the addition of a driving licence (also on a credit-card size piece of plastic) that records everything that the quotation from Blair’s report recommends.

    In France (and this is typical) everyone also has a Health Card (Carte Vitale) which records all of your visits and prescriptions. The information is stored in a chip on the card which needs a special reader to access it, used by health professionals and pharmacists. Once a year the details are uploaded to the particular government health organisation that you are registered with, mainly for financial reasons. Nobody else has access to the data.

    Finally, because there are dozens of government sites with their own log-in procedures, you can use a system known as France Connect to log in on a central server with any verified set of login/password (I use my Tax ID and password) after which you are automatically logged into the service you want. French nationals have a more sophisticated option which gives them access to a wider range of services.

    To some extent, these last can be considered a “digital passport” or “digital ID” but only very loosely: they are more like a digital key, and France has extremely strict data protection laws as well. So far as I know, absolutely nothing like what is described in the article is being discussed in France, and in general EU data protection rules would probably make it impossible elsewhere in Europe As it is, neither the advocates not the critics of this system seem to have much idea of what they are talking about (what does “digital” even mean here?) and in most cases seem to be talking about different things anyway.

    Reply
    1. ambrit

      I take your point but observe that, to we cynics, the worst case scenario always happens, without fail. The basic quibble is the time frame of how quickly and when said worst case scenario happens.
      As our secondary motto puts it: “Hope for the best and plan for the worst.”
      Thanks for your comments. They are the purest gold.

      Reply
    2. podcastkid

      “…but it’s not compulsory.”

      But seems like the swashbucklers are aiming for compulsory. All these fb shares re the perfection of Finland. While at this moment we see there was a tragic flaw yonder as well (I write from US). Things “there” looked good in Michael Moore’s “Sicko,” but the same flaw plaguing everywhere else [addressed by Jacques Ellul seems to me] was nevertheless cook’n in Shangrala too.

      Reply
  5. vao

    A digital ID could help the government to understand users’ needs and preferences better, improving the design of public services

    according to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

    Exactly the kind of argument that the issuer of a customer fidelity card would put forth. The mantra of “government managed as a business” has gone so far that those people cannot envision public policies differently than the practices of a large monopolistic corporation.

    Reply
  6. WillD

    When a western government says ‘there are no plans to……’ then you can safely bet good money that there are in fact plans to do whatever it is. It’s always safer to assume they are lying, as they do nearly all of the time.

    Reply
  7. Isla White

    Left out so far in this discussion is the UK migrant problem; that quite possibly x million (?) are not actually registered as being in the country. Yet in reality are …which a digital ID might help locate.

    But then one of the oddities of living in ex-fascist ‘captured police state’ southern Europe is that citizens – those with their individually specific citizen ID – are in reality often untraceable.

    Ex-fascist states have a peculiarity of limiting the choice of christian names; issuing a recommended list and, now limited, thereby insisting on citizens (and residents!) identifying themselves via their separately stated parents family names.
    With added confusion coming from say a married woman bolting on her husbands family name for some matters and, if a professional – leaving it out in others. Or a child born out of wedlock using just a single parents family name; apparently a widely accepted practice being to only state one parents family name for different dealings.
    So bizarrely allowing multiple ID’s within an ex-police state that only officially allows a single ID!

    Some years ago we had dealings with HMRC over an inheritance and were living in Portugal and in a discussion were told that HMRC (and we assumed from this UK Government agencies as a whole) did not track nationals from Iberian countries returning owing UK tax obligations. Too difficult and the cooperation by officials there ineffective!

    Great news for Iberians returning with capital gains from say property transactions … but impossible the other way round as the UK Land Registry is closely scrutinised for UK nationals reinvesting – within 18 months – any gain they made in Hispanic property!

    This difficulty in traceability also reinforced by a Portuguese bank clerk telling us that her bank did not chase, for example, car loans .. as it was not cost effective.

    Reply
  8. Ludus57

    The services banks provide through their basic chequing and deposit accounts are a utility that serves both the community and business. Like all natural monopolies they should be publicly owned and properly regulated. Swashbuckling bankers should be as extinct as their closest relative in nature, the Tyrannosaurus Rex.

    Reply
  9. Bill W

    Very rich coming from the UK government that they oppose biometric ID cards, but insist on all British citizens living in the EU to have bio metric ID cards and biometric passports. Lets be honest here. They don’t want a joined up ID system because their bank accounts balance, tax returns, place of residency and identity will all be visible to HMRC at the click of 1 button.

    Reply

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