Ego & I.D. (Head to Head)

By Hanover Hex and Sean Cubitt, 10 December 2001

This month’s Head to Head asks: Does the possible introduction of ID cards into the UK represent an attack on freedom? In a political climate in which the sacrifice of personal privacy is widely considered a fair price to pay for the protection of society from ‘terror’, the media debate often does not extend beyond the practicalities involved. Here the two very different types of information expert we aked to respond to this question both reject the middle ground consensus. But aside from this, Hanover Hex – of the Overseas and Home Security Secretariat – and Sean Cubitt – author of Digital Aesthetics – could not disagree more

Hanover Hex – HEAD1

Identity cards are obsolete. Originally they functioned as credentials to control movement through security checkpoints, but large numbers of people cannot be screened from manual lists and forged cards of any quality are available for a price. But never fear, the technology to help combat such glitches and misdemeanours has arrived: biometric devices such as iris scanners, and perhaps soon DNA bio-chips, are intended to eliminate forgery; computers can supposedly match large watch lists; and smart cards can be made tamper-resistant. Et voila – we give you the encapsulated citizen! These technologies stop 99 percent of all known impersonation crime dead.

The odd thing about this argument is the palaver with the cards, which are simply being used as vehicles for the biometric. Why not just extract the biometric directly at source? A policeman could simply point a pen-size camera at your eye from a good distance and have your registered identity radioed back in seconds from a citizenry database. It seems that in order to placate civil libertarians, the biometric won’t be surreptitiously acquired – fair warning will be given on all relevant devices or entry ways, and there is no imperative to proceed. You can just imagine Patricia Hewitt saying: ‘and I think most people would find that perfectly reasonable.’

The real reason we haven’t yet realised Orwell’s Big Brother or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, is that in practice it has been hideously expensive to connect all the different government and private databases holding all your various data trails. But right now the Office of the e-Envoy is building the e-Government Gateway. Everyone will have to log in to get anything done. To get parking tokens, renew your swimming ticket, check your library reservations, even to search for public domain policy and consultation documents. Of course, you were already being tracked through your numerous day-to-day transactions, but this data was stored on disconnected computers that might just conceivably have been referred to in major police investigations. But now all of the new data that is being laid down in systems built since the Gateway will be able to be linked together is two C#’s of a .NET’s XML.

OK, so let’s admit that 95 percent of benefit fraud is achieved through misrepresentation of circumstances and not identity theft. The hidden agenda of the ‘smartcards reduce fraud’ mantra is that this is predicated on massive systemic cross-departmental data matching. Which is good, right? I mean everyone moans about how multi-billion pound computer projects have failed for the past twenty years, so won’t life be just tremendous when these computers are finally made to work? I’m so looking forward to it, I can hardly wait. Things will be so much more efficient and that will make life better for all of us – won’t it? I mean, you will be cured of diseases you never knew you were destined to contract because your genes will be pooled with everyone else’s to be analysed for the common good. Some robot scientists say that soon our furniture and toys will be intelligent and know more about our likes and dislikes than any human being.

But this kind of progress comes at a cost, of course. We can only reap the benefits, seize tomorrow’s world, if we are prepared to leave behind such foolish ideals as freedom of thought, presumption of innocence, and the dignity of man. We will presume someone innocent if their record says they are likely to be innocent, and if we don’t happen to know they are guilty because of saturation surveillance. Until a few centuries ago, if a suspect refused to plead in court, they could be judged ‘mute of malice’ and heavy stones would be placed on their chest until they were crushed. Resisting biometric identification or wilfully withholding computer passwords is contempt for the state and should be similarly punished.

Sean Cubitt – HEAD2

To live in the 21st century is to be surrounded by a datacloud. Somewhere ill-resolved in the heart of the cloud is an entity we still fondly, and slightly nostalgically, refer to as an identity. It’s a fuzzy thing, shifting shape and orientation as the day goes by, becoming passenger, customer, lover, citizen, driver, subjecting itself to environments that refocus it in regimes of rules, behaviours, codes. Its freedom, its only freedom, is the freedom to adapt. When we want to punish the wrong-doer or discriminate against the stranger, we limit that freedom, the freedom of navigation and adaptation, the freedom of evolution. So how come only some of us have that freedom, and others not? How come we accept losing our evolutionary capacities in certain situations (like driving a car in traffic) but not in others? I can think of a dozen reasons because freedom is an illusion, an American ideology. Because the real freedom concerns not identity but community – changing the social environment, not adapting to survive in it. Because privacy all too easily becomes secrecy, the defensive attitude of those wife-battering, tax-evading, slave-owning exploiters of the poor and oppressors of the weak who rule the world. Because an ID card belonging to the state has less power than a credit card belonging to global corporations. Because if one of my fellows is condemned to identity, in justice, equality and comradeship, I demand to have one inflicted on me too. Because identity is a fiction, and I am not my data image.

I don’t mean to be facile. ID cards are more significant than tarot cards. Maybe as significant as loyalty cards, except that you get a payback from a loyalty scheme in return for your data. Is there a valid exchange between ID data-gathering and a reward to the person ID’d? The capitalist argument between those who answer yes and no to this question misses the point. Privacy was a property of the elite for a brief period between the 1750s and the 1950s. Since then, we have privatised the public and publicised the private. There is no road leading back, except perhaps those driven by even more intensely invasive forms of fundamentalist identity formation. Today my dreams are not my own. They are inhabited by advertising jingles, pin-ups, logos, anxieties about debt: social dreams, political unconscious. My thoughts appear in a language I did not invent, as images cribbed from the commerce of culture, in songs sung by a million people. The challenge is not to resist these changing modes, but to force them further along their paths. The ID card is a last ditch attempt to maintain the fiction of identity: demand two. We already have branded phone cards: create new brands for IDs. Insist your card includes, in detail, your sexual and dietary preferences. The age of privacy is over. Time to publicise the intimate, to dream in the open air.

Hanover Hex is a member of the Overseas and Home Security Secretariat, Cabinet Office

Sean Cubitt <seanc AT> is a web-poet and academic teaching and writing in Hamilton, New Zealand