To ID or Not to ID - that is the question?

Ever since the infamous Windrush scandal, MPs have considered introducing new measures of identification in the UK. At the moment, the typical means of official ID in this country are drivers licenses and passports. However, there are no government-issued IDs as there are in other countries. Parliament is still debating whether the benefits of IDs to UK citizens outweighs the potential of increased surveillance power to the state.




Let’s look at the actual IDs themselves


If the British Government were to introduce them they would probably be similar to those used in Hong Kong, which has had them for almost 15 years. The state sends them to its citizens free of charge (you only pay if you need to replace it, and it’s actually £8 cheaper than getting a driver’s license). Personal data is protected on the IDs as: a) the usage by the government is regulated by established legislation b) Only authorised departments have access to the relevant databases and there is no sharing of databases among government departments c) Only minimal data is stored in the chip. More sensitive data are kept in back-end computer systems.


Moreover, all non-immigration applications of the smart identity card are voluntary options. Far from the idea that they could become tools of an authoritarian government, they are a rather helpful and useful means of staying “on the grid” - not just for government, but for businesses too.




What are the benefits?


There have been numerous benefits shown by the issuing of ID cards, such as in my city of origin, Hong Kong. It improves the efficiency of public services and insurance companies as the ID number is linked to various databases. This means that the government and such companies can easily pull up information when needed, all from the electronic chip attached and from the card itself. Additionally, it aids immigration officers by easing border control, as Hong Kong citizens simply go through an e-gate that registers your card and fingerprint, smoothing the customs process and monitoring those who enter the country more effectively and efficiently. The ability to use biometric devices as a result of having ID cards also allows the police to pursue criminals and terrorists more easily.


Despite an increase in China's influence over Hong Kong in recent years, resulting in a change in dynamic in the "one country, two systems" model; Hong Kongers are still confident that their government are not and will not use ID cards as a means of social repression.


Responsibilities and inconveniences


However, these ID cards carry serious responsibilities. Under the Registration of the Persons Ordinance (cap. 177), all Hong Kong residents aged 11 and above must carry their ID card with them at all times. For those who are residents, this does have implications as it means that their carrying of the card is enforced by the police via “stops and searches.” Whereas "stop and search" has negative connotations in the United States, the policy is favourably received in Hong Kong as it gives police extra power to crack down issues such as drug crime since fingerprints are linked to ID cards, thus proving to be useful in rooting out such organisations.




Voter ID Laws


Many activists have argued that the introduction of ID cards entails the disenfranchisement of minorities, as ethnic and racial minorities have less access to photo IDs. This was an issue of debate in the United States, as many states require a form of photo ID to vote to prevent voting fraud. This poses as an obstacle due to the cost and time of getting an ID, while immigrants are likely to lack access to the documents required to get an ID.


During the 2018 May Local Council Elections in the UK, there was a trial where people voting in Bromley, Gosport, Swindon, Watford and Woking were asked to show ID, in forms of bank cards, utility statements and drivers licenses to prevent voting fraud. Many voters found this process cumbersome, and were irritated as they were turned away from their polling station. However, this is a matter of habit that could be overcome easily, and there is nothing inherently wrong with requiring voters to present their IDs in order to curb electoral fraud.




To ID


It is clear, therefore, to see that the UK government should adopt the use of ID cards in the next few years to improve government, policing and border efficiency, and to simplify the lives of its citizens.


This article was adapted from a blogpost from Tabby's student-led project Barrister Not Barista





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