WriteToThem.com

FOR THE ATTENTION OF:

David Lepper MP
Brighton, Pavilion

Thursday 16 March 2006

Dear David Lepper,

With the ID System Bill currently bouncing back and forth between the two Houses, I thought I would try one further time to go up against the power of the party whip and change your mind on the matter. While the debate seems to be centring on the definition of "voluntary" (and I haven't seen any figures to determine the general public's comprehension of the term, nor do I expect I will), I don't believe that this is the primary issue that one should focus on when determining the future of democracy in the UK.

As you probably know, many critics of the ID card claim that such a system would "fundamentally alter the relationship between the citizen and the state", or words to that effect. Many proponents of the system would also be hard-pushed, I think, to disagree with this idea, considering that the system is designed to "weed out" criminal elements from the "innocent" public. Any technique that affects the level of information known about a citizen will challenge the existing link between state and the individual. Simply put, criminals, terrorists and fraudsters are considered to be innocent individuals too, until they are caught. Thus, the need for interjection into the individual by the state.

Yet the real meaning of this "fundamental alteration" is barely touched upon in discussion, and it is this aspect of the debate that simultaneously overshadows the linguistic ambiguity we see at the moment, and sets terrorism, party politics and technology in a much wider, socially democratic light - the very fabric of what a government should or should not be.

I am not sure if you are familiar with the concepts of profiling and data-mining. If not, it is sufficient to compare them to techniques used by supermarkets (for their loyalty cards) and banks (to detect "unusual" spending patterns), in which two things can be discerned through large-scale monitoring of usage data. As Lee Tien of the EFF says (see [1], below), it is "about connecting those dots - analyzing and aggregating them - in a way that we haven't thought about."

Firstly, predictable patterns of behaviour can be identified on an individual level. In supermarket terms, if I buy bread and jam, there's a good chance I'll buy butter too. Thus, the supermarket can influence my purchases through strategic placement of certain products in accordance with others.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly (yet discussed less), one can draw conclusions from the links *between* people. Shoppers often only use their loyalty cards in one particular shop, but the shop can use this data to at least see how often people return to a specific location. By keeping track of the contacts between different parties and noting the patterns that emerge on a wider, societal level, a level of analysis similar to product-purchase in shops can be achieved, but applied to a much larger scale.

It is this second level of analysis that leads to this "fundamental alteration" in the state-citizen balance. Under the current ID system plans, there is a certain amount of "transparency", in that an individual can see what information is stored about themselves. But what the "owner" of the data can see, that the individual cannot, is the emerging layer of interpersonal relational links that form when one has access to such information. In other words, I can see what the government knows about me, but I cannot see how the government relates me to everyone else.

It is this power over society that I find dangerous - the ability to monitor it as a whole and, with that monitoring, the very feasible ability to influence and "direct" the way in which society progresses.

The techniques used to determine whether someone is potentially a funder of terrorism (as indicated by who they are in contact with versus who they are *expected* to be in contact with) are the same as those used to determine if someone is a potential "threat" to the political system as a whole.

The techniques used to control organised crime (by splitting apart the links that bind it together) are the same as can be used to control organised political movements.

All that has to be decided, once the technology is in place, is what pattern should be looked for. This is not some paranoid Orwellian delusion - the fear inherent in "1984", and the aversion to the image it portrays, is because we perceive it to be so different. But in reality, things change far more slowly - hence the Information Commissioner Richard Thomas' remarks about "sleepwalking into a surveillance society".

ID Cards themselves are not the issue here. Rather, you are voting for an ID *system* that has the ability to map out the national landscape of *all* of our social and business interactions. It will be a map that a relative few will have access to - certainly not the people that it maps out.

Maps are important tools. They let the traveller pick their chosen course through the terrain, to arrive at a point they wish to reach. This is useful, even essential for mountaineering but, unfortunately, is a dangerous thing to have under a democratic system in which a government is supposed to remain accountable to the people, rather than the other way around.

I understand that we live in a time of great uncertainty, in which decisions between the safety of innocent people and dedication to a free society do not come easily. But the ID system represents one of the largest threats in recent time to this long-term idea of "freedom" - for ourselves, as an equal amalgamation of both elected and electorate - in the face of short-term uncertainty. As a result, I hereby beg you to reconsider your support of the Bill, and to take into account the future of political engagement as we know it.


Yours sincerely,

(Scribe)


[1]: http://www.csmonitor.com/2006/0209/p01s02-uspo.html?s=hns