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
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 , 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
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 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.