[Dave Birch] Over the past couple of years, I’ve become convinced that one reason for the sterility of the debate about identity cards in the UK — which is, of course, one of the most important digital identity initiatives there’s likely to be here — is that "cards" is fundamentally the wrong name.  By calling the identity computers of tomorrow "cards", we stunt the thinking and set in place a group of metaphors that lead less technical persons (eg, politicians) to create the wrong infrastructure, an infrastructure that looks backward to centralised databases, closed networks and pieces of cardboard.  So what can the ID computers of tomorrow do that the ID cards of the past could not?  And why does a privacy-sensitive person such as myself think that ID computers are a good idea?

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Well, for one thing, ID computers can selectively disclose information about their holder.  For another, they can validate their interrogator.  This gets around a big problem with cardboard identity cards: anyone can read them, and when they do read them, they read everything on them.
In my opinion, a 21st century ID card should exploit three key technologies—microcomputers, biometrics and digital signatures—to provide a service that citizens want, that makes life easier for them, that they will voluntarily choose to use.  It would be even better if the card could provide a special service for citizens that they can’t get without it. Somewhat counter-intuitively, that special service may well be privacy.
The singular advantage of using computers, biometrics and digital signatures is that they can work together to disclose facts about someone without disclosing their full identity.  Your ID card could, for example, send a message to a machine confirming that you are over 18 without disclosing who you are or what your citizen number is.  The recipient of that message—a bar, say—would know that the digital signature from the ID card is real and that the message had not been forged and let you come in and buy a drink: but who you are could remain confidential.


  1. the problem is that the person on the street is used to the term ‘cards’, e.g. credit card, debit card, oyster card etc. but, I agree, once you start thinking about the word ‘card’, the more you realise how inappropriate it is, afer all the credit card was invented decades ago. but I am not sure that id computer is the best term – a lot of people may be frightened by the thought of having a computer in their wallet! how about a contest for the best name?

  2. That’s an excellent idea Tony: in fact, I will do that at this year’s Forum and I’ll make sure that there will be an appropriate prize.

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