I'm sitting in a dark corner of a steamy back-alley bar in the Northern Thailand city of Chiang Mai, sipping Mekong whisky and soaking in the sleaze. A slouch- hatted local entrepreneur has infested the place with a hideous collection of over-friendly snakes and monkeys, hoping to entice money out of us hapless tourists. So far, the monkeys haven't spotted me.
My intention is to investigate a showcase of the most sophisticated information technology in the world. Thailand has instituted a pan-governmental IT programme the like of which has never been seen outside Singapore. The smiling locals serving my drinks are part of a new technological order. Here, in Joe's Bar, is the blueprint for Michael Howard's proposed British national ID card.
Over the past four years - to their unending bemusement - all the locals around Joe's Bar have been issued with high-tech, plastic identity cards, part of a national strategy to computerise the Thai government and to keep track of the population. Every Thai adult now has a machine-readable ID card containing a digitised thumbprint and photograph, details of family and ancestry, education and occupation, nationality, religion, and information relating to taxation and police records.
The card can be scanned by any police or government official to activate a sophisticated nationwide network of computers throughout the Thai government. By using a person's "population" number, which is registered in all agencies and banks, it will soon be possible to instantly secure information from police, social welfare, taxation, immigration, housing, employment, driving licence, census, electoral, passport, vehicle, insurance, education and health-record databases.
This remarkable system is called the Central Population Database (CPD). It is the world's second-largest relational database, surpassed only by the Mormon Church's system in Salt Lake City, which contains much of the world's genealogical data. The Thai system has become the blueprint for similar programmes around the world.
For a government obsessed by the urgency of economic growth, this system is crucial. From the perspective of the military and the police, it offers an opportunity to monitor and track the entire population. And it appears to be a wild success. Departments are performing more efficiently. The flow of information across administrative borders has been lubricated. The job of the police and military is easier. The ID card is the visible part of the technology and the only part that most Thais understand. But behind the card lies a strategy to construct a web of information which binds every aspect of a Thai citizen's life.
Few people in Thailand are fretting about these developments. Bangkok yuppies are anxious to ape the most sophisticated features of Western life. Politicians are eager to show the world that Thailand is a truly advanced society. The military wants more information. Ordinary working people are too preoccupied with survival to even care. The result is that the government has enjoyed a clear run in harmonising information systems throughout the nation, and linking them to the CPD programme.
Back in Joe's Bar, the ID card hangs on a chain around the neck of each member of staff. The manager explains that police make regular checks to ensure that workers in Chiang Mai are legitimate Thai nationals. And it's not just the police who want to see the ID card. It has become something of an internal passport. Legal and civil rights groups are starting to report a range of problems caused by the system. Abuses, discrimination, loss of entitlement to services and denial of basic rights are becoming more common throughout the country. Such are the costs of forcing a new order upon an old one.
The West's computer industry had been targeting the Thai Government since the mid-1980s. Slick promotional material, promising technology that would reform government administration and benefit law and order, was accompanied by slick lobbying of Thailand's MPs.
In 1987, a small group of IT-skilled Thai bureaucrats from the Ministry of the Interior, backed by the military, convinced the government to proceed with a package offered by the US-based Control Data Corp. The package involved a central register of the entire population, 50 million ID cards and a complex system of administrative links throughout the private and public sector. Now, after seven years, the Control Data system is no longer merely an ID card system. It has become nothing less than the central nervous system of government administration.
Half a world away, in London, Home Secretary Michael Howard was looking to introduce an identity card of his own. An identity card that, he hoped, would attract popular appeal and restore the flagging fortunes of the Tory Party. But, unlike the Thai card - the key component of an integrated information programme - what Howard really wanted was an icon, a symbol of the government's drive to restore law and order.
Howard believed he was building on strong political foundations. The 1994 Tory Party conference had received more than 40 motions calling for ID cards. For many conservative MPs, an ID card represents a simple and effective solution to crime and administrative inefficiency. And while some Eurosceptics believe the card will reinforce our Britishness, some Euro supporters want it to bring the UK into line with other European States. At the time, neither the Labour Party nor the Lib Dems appeared willing to oppose a voluntary card.
When Howard told the 1994 Tory conference that the government would proceed with a national ID card, the announcement came almost a year to the day after John Major first declared his support for a card.
However, public opinion polls on the subject have always brought a mixed result. Most indicate a clear support for the introduction of a card, others reveal a different picture. MORI conducted a poll in mid-1994 which asked whether people would support an identity card containing bank account details, fingerprint, photograph, drivers licence and national insurance details. The poll revealed that while 37 per cent of people approved of such a card, 48 per cent disliked the idea. And while 16 per cent of the survey said they liked strongly the idea of a card, more than double - 33 per cent - said they strongly disliked it. (Curiously, most of the Conservative supporters polled disapproved of the card, while Liberal Democrats were overwhelmingly in favour.) Perhaps the most surprising element of the survey was the revelation that young people - aged 15 to 24 - were most strongly in favour of the cards.
Needless to say, smart cards and their operating systems are a booming global industry. Suppliers like IBM, ICL, Control Data and Bull had already targeted such countries as Thailand, the Philippines, Australia and New Zealand. Britain seemed the next stop for the carnival, though it seems the tune has always been the same. The industry bumph promised a technical solution to Britain's social and administrative ills. New smart-card technology and advanced computer design would make ours a more efficient, safe and prosperous society. ID cards would be the key to a streamlined and harmonised government administration. And, of course, in the background was the quiet message that the job of the police would be made a lot easier.
Of course a national ID card system is more than just cards. Everybody in the country needs to be assigned a number and a vast computer system has to be built to hold, support and process the data. Both are administrative nightmares. And both cost.
If the ID card was to find universal support in the institutions that were supposed to administer it, the card would have to be much more than the simple feel-good icon that Michael Howard had envisioned. Fortunately for the Home Secretary, a plan was being hatched.
Who needs to know?I'm sitting in a dark corner of the office of a low level mandarin in the Department of Social Security. I have just been engaged as a consultant to advise the DSS on a controversial aspect of benefit delivery. At the end of a two hour briefing, I leave with just one piece of A4 paper - and not a very enlightening piece of A4 at that. The Department simply doesn't trust me with any more information.
Indeed, it seems the Department doesn't trust anyone, particularly itself. I ask the man across the desk to give me names of other Department officials who might help me in my task. This, it turns out, is not an appropriate request. "They don't need to know," he tells me. "So you don't need to contact anyone else in the Department." As a government consultant you quickly learn that every section of each division in every Department is its own little fiefdom. The fences are so high that even sections supposedly working towards the same goals are unwilling, or unable, to communicate. Instead, they hoard information, play complex political games and keep to their own agendas.
This attitude has been the bane of government for more than a century. The civil service culture in Britain is replete with management chasms, informational moats and black holes, into which is placed any plan that might change The System.
While such a culture has the beneficent effect of resisting government efforts to centralise power and information, it has some unfortunate consequences. Change comes hard to the civil service, and external input is resented and resisted. Reform is perceived as a threat rather than a challenge.
As a result, the government long ago gave up on the idea of knocking down the fences between its various fiefdoms. Instead, it has started to focus on using technology to leap over them. If departments will never agree on ways of delivering their services more efficiently, co-ordinating their functions, and sharing their information more effectively, perhaps an external mechanism might be found to circumvent the problem. Dah-nah! Enter, the multi-function smart card.
The multi-function smart card is the brainchild of the government's Centre for Information Systems (CCTA), a well-connected Whitehall advisory body. It recently recommended the issuing of a national smart card that would contain details of the bearer's driving licence, passport, DSS entitlements, health records and banking information. This plan was then submitted to a high-level Whitehall committee known as GEN 34, comprising the Home Secretary and innumberable other senior ministers. GEN 34's brief is to promote a co-ordinated approach to the use of card technology by government.
At first sight, given the history of such efforts, the plan seems doomed to failure. Yet, according to a bundle of recently leaked cabinet documents, the government is confident it can succeed with the strategy. In January, the Guardian obtained the papers from an ex-government filing cabinet in a Camden junk shop. Included in the find was a 17-page report from CCTA which describes an impressive research programme for introducing smart cards by the turn of the century. Twenty-two experimental smart card projects are underway in Whitehall.
Most projects are designed to tackle fraud, but some are aimed at improving the delivery of government services. The CCTA's aim is to co-ordinate these various card proposals and create a single electronic ID document for every UK citizen.
One of the reports, written for the eyes of ministers, says that fraudulent use of smart cards could be contained at a low level with the addition of photographs and fingerprints.
Over at the Home Office, it did not take Home Secretary Michael Howard very long to work out an alternative use for the embryonic multi-function smart card. A letter to the Prime Minister from Lord Wakeham, then Lord Privy Seal, in May '94, makes it clear that the two initially separate concepts - the Tory ID card and the multi-function smart card - will inevitably come together.
So, to recap. But for a few vocal rebels, the Tory Party wants an ID card - but most parties are ambivalent. The Cabinet Office wants a co-ordinated information strategy within government - but most departments are nervous. Answer? A national card that improves the delivery of government services, guarantees its bearer's identity, and boosts the Tories' claims to be the party of law and order. GEN 34's proposal achieves these.
And if the government needs to back up its case, it only has to point to the success of Thailand's pioneering scheme.
If, however, the government cares to cast its eyes further afield, it will find not everything is rosy in the national ID cards garden.
Unidentifiable AussiesIn 1986, the Australian government announced its intention to introduce a national identity card. There, initially, the public accepted the idea without question.
The Australia Card was to be carried by all Australian citizens and permanent residents. (Separately marked cards would be issued to temporary residents and visitors). The card would contain a photograph, name, unique number, signature and period of validity.
The plan was, after all, merely a matter of weeding out tax evaders and welfare fraudsters. Only cheats and criminals would oppose it, chanted the parliament. Law-abiding citizens have nothing to fear, it was said. Over time, "Nothing to hide, nothing to fear" became a sort of national mantra. And of course, few people wanted to stand in the way of efforts to catch the guilty. Early opinion polls showed 80 per cent of the population in support of the card.
Indeed, so popular was the idea that the number of government agencies wanting to use the card as the basis for their administration leapt in six months from three to 30. Quickly, the proposed card was extended in scope to catch criminals and illegal immigrants, and was to be used for financial transactions, property dealings and employment. The list grew and grew. Health benefits, passport control, housing. (This growth in applications was dubbed "Function Creep".) A billion dollars a year would ultimately be saved by the ID card system, it was said.
Then something unexpected happened. The public started to debate the downside of the card. Questions about the civil liberties implications were raised. Doubts were cast. Prominent Australians from both ends of the political spectrum warned that the card was not the best way to solve societal problems, but a slippery slope leading to a totally regulated society - and, perhaps, to a police state.
Attention suddenly was focused on the extensive reporting obligations throughout the government and the community; the automatic exchange of information throughout the government; the ease of expansion of the system; and the encouragement of the private sector and state governments to make use of the card and its contained number. All finance sector employees realised they would be forced under threat of jail to report all suspicious activity to the government.
It took less than three months for the Australian public to recognise the dangerous potential of the card. People no longer believed it was merely a piece of plastic - the spectre of the complete linkage of all information became a frightening prospect. A major national opinion poll conducted in the closing days of the campaign by the Channel Nine television network revealed a staggering 90 per cent opposition to the card. The normally staid Australian Financial Review produced a scathing editorial which concluded "It is simply obscene to use revenue arguments - 'We can make more money out of the Australia Card' - as support for authoritarian impositions rather than take the road of broadening national freedoms."
There were also pragmatic concerns. It was recognised that perhaps five per cent of cards would be lost, stolen or damaged each year. Hundreds of thousands of people would, as a result, suffer serious and prolonged disruption of their personal affairs.
By August 1987, the Government faced an internal crisis over the card. The left of the party had broken ranks to oppose the card, while right-wing members (particularly those in marginal seats) were expressing concern within caucus. Deputy Prime Minister Lionel Bowen urged the Party to tread with caution, and suggested that a rethink might be necessary.
In September, in the face of massive public protests and a growing split in the government, the plan was scrapped.
Initially, Australians had seen the ID card as little more than another form of identification. But the idea that one's life could literally be paralysed without it made people very nervous. As always with ID cards, identification is just one component.
Remarkably, however, the main problem with all ID card systems is not their inevitable incompatibility with civil rights. It is rather the curious repercussion that far from controlling crime, cards actually entrench it. By providing a one-stop form of identity, criminals can easily obtain and use cards under several aliases. Even the highest-integrity bank cards are available as blanks in countries such as Singapore for a handful of dollars. Within two months of the new Commonwealth Bank high-security hologram cards being issued in Australia, near-perfect forgeries were in circulation.
The Australian experience was replicated on a smaller scale in New Zealand four years later with the 'Kiwi Card'. A proposed national ID card in the Philippines was scuttled by human-rights groups on the grounds of cost. It seems you can't fool all of the people all of the time. Even within the Tory ranks, no less than three dissenting groups have formed. One, the Conservative Way Forward under the leadership of former Prime Minister Baroness Thatcher, argue identity cards are an attack on the traditional liberties of the British people. A second group, led by Euro- sceptic Sir Teddy Taylor MP, believe the cards pave the way for the dismantling of Britain's external borders. Some senior ministers, such as Social Security Secretary Peter Lilley and Welsh Secretary John Redwood, oppose the cards on libertarian grounds. Just to add to the Tories' woes the Labour shadow cabinet has come out against compulsory cards.
With a simple piece of plastic, the Tories may seal their fate at the next election.
Simon Davies (email@example.com) is a Law Fellow at Essex and Greenwich Universities and Director of Privacy International.