[Dave Birch] There was a really interesting letter in The Daily Telegraph "Money" section (2nd October). I can't find it online to link to, so I hope they don't mind me quoting a couple of chunks here. The letter comes from someone who tried to open a bank account with HSBC, but who didn't have a current passport or driving licence.

When I explained this at a branch, it was suggested that I ask the police station for proof of identity. The police officers said they had never heard of such a thing unless I had a criminal record.

[From The Daily Telegraph "Jessica Investigates", 2nd October 2009]

That can't be right: you can only have a bank account at HSBC if you have a criminal record? The disappointed would-be bank account holder went back to their branch to ask for alternatives.

The counter person showed me a list of possible documents, but, as I am not a pensioner, nor in receipt of benefits, the only item on the list she could suggest I try was to get a letter from HMRC. I duly went to the local tax office, where the assistant said she wished banks would stop sending people there… they would not waste public money providing such letters for banks.

[From The Daily Telegraph "Jessica Investigates", 2nd October 2009]

The letter goes on to list the documents that the wannabe-HSBCer had presented, and had had rejected by the bank: an out-of-date passport, a birth certificate, a current payslip from an employer (the local council, for whom the person had worked for more than two decades), a work ID card (complete with microchip), utility bills, statements from another bank, house deeds and a voting card. Any one of these would have got you a job with the bank, but not, it seems, an account. Identity is broken, and the Conservative plan to scrap the national ID card scheme is a bad as the government's plan to keep it. What this country needs is a working national identity infrastructure.

Some of this is just baffling. Birth certificates aren't a proof of identity? I suppose it must be because they are too easy to forge. So why aren't banks enthusiastic about the governments new national identity card? It's because, in a way, banks don't really care who you are, they care about the credit history of whatever identity you present to them. What they do care about is complying with stringent "know your customer" regulations: since they will have to pay to verify the ID card that you present then they are not keen unless the government gives them exemption from any liability, which they won't. At the moment, if you come and open an account with a Burmese passport, the bank cannot possibly know whether it's a real Burmese passport or not, but it doesn't matter, since the obligation on them is simply to keep a copy of it. If they do this, and the passport subsequently turns out to be false, then it's not their problem. Now suppose the banks puts the presented ID card in some sort of Home Office box and get's a green light. Should the ID card subsequently turn out to be counterfeit, or not to belong to the carrier, then the bank would want the Home Office to accept any liability. Right now, they won't, so the banks (as they see it0 would actually be worse off by using a stronger identity scheme.

The reason I was thinking back to the letter in The Telegraph, though, was because one of the projects we are working on at the moment concerns longer-term authentication strategy for a financial institution, and I was mulling over the connections between the real and virtual worlds. Clearly, if I as a customer could use the same tamper-resistant device to log in to their bank from home and to open an account with a branch in person, that would be great. But in the UK that device is unlikely to be the national ID card, so what should it be? Perhaps something that has a keyboard and screen as well? Perhaps something that everyone already has, so neither the government nor the banks have to pay for it? If only there were some kind of ubiquitous technology that could help here…

These opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]


  1. The police can provide a certificate for no criminal record, but the British police refuse to do it (for fairly sensible reasons, IMO) unless you are in a particular segment such as childcare. Last I heard at least, and you have to know who and what to ask for.
    This plays havoc on expatriates because many immigration & residency departments insist on a record from your last police jurisdiction. To resolve this, one tends to have to hunt around for a jurisdiction that does not care so much. For the most part I’ve always provided one from a place I lived in around 20 years ago; the immigration officials don’t care, as long as they have the piece of paper.

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