Thursday, October 20, 2005

ID Cards: C'est la lutte finale

Well, the good people of the House of Commons have done their thing. The closet fascists and crude worshippers of power did what they had to do. 25 Labour MPs did what they had to do, but of course never enough. 43 MPs failed to turn up. As seems to be normal today, the unelected are now called to redress the balance of the elected. It's off to the Lords with the Big Database that Can't Possibly Work.

The last push, eh? We're in the final now, and we're playing on our home ground. We always lose all the battles, except the last one. That's the British patriotic cliches done. Now, let's have a think about the supposed concessions Charles Clarke bought his way through the Commons with.

Clarke, first up, claimed the cards might cost as little as £30, against an estimate of £93. Clearly the main saving here was just cutting out the cost of a passport, included in the figure of £93. Why anyone would want a voluntary ID card but not a passport is a question we ought to skip. Overall, though, where would the extra cash come from? There was an answer to this. Efficiency savings in other departments like the NHS would save the Safety Elephant's bacon.

Efficiency savings is a phrase that should strike terror into every citizen's heart. It is the post-Thatcher civil service's favourite thing, a sort of administrative white powder that permits a far greater degree of servility to arbitrary authority than otherwise possible. Your budget is less than enough, but the Line To Take says nothing may be cut (as it always does if neither refugees nor soldiers are involved) . What to do? A good snort of the fairy dust. Mmmm! And suddenly, strange to tell, exactly enough money is saved to pass the budget. The best, though, is yet to come. Nothing real must happen until the budgeting round, when there are two equally good options. These are: Select a target group and cut'em, or alternatively collapse on the steps of the Treasury. One way, you make the nut by not serving some bunch of people without a lobby. The other way, you just fail and turn the Prime Minister against the Chancellor. They both work.

The second Clarkean concession was his statement that no more information than what is held on passports at the moment would be "on the card", and that the citizens would be able to check the data on a secure website protected by a PIN. With this move, Clarke neatly destroyed the political and financial basis of his own mutant, pus-trailing turdbeast of a scheme. Think about it: without all the information they want and he just ruled out, what would be the value of the cards to the NHS? Either they would have to choose the Home Office Big Database as the best possible option, which is only conceivable if all UK and European procurement rules were torn up, or they would have to use it for free, and then transfer the still-mythical efficiency savings to the Home Office.

Of course, the NHS would be far more likely to spend any real savings on something useful like bandages than give it back to the Treasury. What chance would the Home Office have of extracting the cash from Gordon Brown? Those efficiency savings opught to be put in with the eternal Tory myth of the big lump of money marked WASTE it's so easy to get rid of if you vote for Me.

But the really worrying new points about ID control are nothing to do with the NHS. For a start, that "secure website" protected by a PIN. PINs only work in banking because, to use them, you have to have a bank card and produce the number in person. You can't realistically stand at a cashpoint and hammer in every combination from 0000-9999 until you break into an account. On the Internet, though, you can have a simple script do that, and even distribute the requests over time and over a botnet to evade lockouts. And, by sheer maths, you will in the end succeed. The best security response from the government would probably be to block large chunks of address space, thus denying half Britain Internet access - so, even failure would be nearly as good as success.

The second we've already touched on. There will be no further data "on the card". This would make the cards pointless. But will the card numbers be added to other, existing databases in which the same information lies? Remember: it's not the card, it's the database. I think he's lying.

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