[Dave Birch] Writing in the June 2010 edition of the US magazine “Liberty” (which is a libertarian journal), Wendy McElroy made a couple of observations that resonate. She says

I am not against ID in general: it serves valuable functions.

She then goes on to distinguish between identification and certification, as distinction that is missing from many ID card-related visions. She then makes a crucial point, one I that endorse wholeheartedly.

The valid functions of ID have a common characteristic: they provide advantages to the individual who holds the ID.

Indeed, an a central reason for the tragic trajectory of the UK ID card scheme was precisely that it did not. She then makes another assertion:

Who benefits from national IDs? The state, not the individual.

I’m afraid I have to disagree with Wendy on this one. Individuals can benefit from national IDs, if they are assembled in the correct way (ie, my way) and I have no objection from the state benefiting from them too (apart from anything else, I pay for it) provided that that precondition is met. But suppose a national ID infrastructure isn’t put together in a 21st-century way? In that case, it still isn’t only that state that benefits: criminals do too. As I said a couple of years ago:

If you were going to create a criminal enterprise based on bogus ID cards, who would you target? Probably the group with the least recourse to the law: illegal immigrants. This is exactly what has been going on in Malaysia, where a fake identity card issuing syndicate which cheated hundreds of illegal immigrants has been broken up by the police

[From Digital Identity Forum: New identity crimes]

Of course, there’s a problem the other way round as well, with illegal immigrants being given documents that they are not entitled to.

In Pakistan and Malaysia a high number of illegal immigrants become legitimate because they acquire a biometric card. Illegal immigrants get into the system usually at entry points of the country. Entry points are governed by human resource. And human resource can be corrupted.

[From The Hindu : Life & Style / Society : A question of identity ]

I found a similar point being made in a story from the Yemeni News Agency.

When a Somali refugee who could not speak purely Arabic and insists that he is from Hjjah province, came to al-Thawra police station in the Capital Sana’a for ID, he was requested by the police station to present his documents. He was ready with his electoral card, neighborhoods’ supervisor recommendation and ID copies of two witnesses as identification documents to get his Yemeni ID. As the concerned policeman wanted to stop the process of granting him the ID, his co-worker rejected that saying there is no excuse to stop or delay it because he has all the required documents and it’s the election committee’s responsibility.

That’s a different case isn’t it? Why shouldn’t people with the right papers get a national ID? The chap in question wasn’t trying to bribe the police to give him an ID. Ah, but…

Police officers affirm that refugees can get IDs by giving bribes to concerned officials. These bribes are ranging from USD 500-1000. “Thousands of African refugees could obtain Yemeni IDs by bribing the brokers who have relations with civil affairs investigations and who in their turn allow the procedures to pass through,” said a police station’s officer. Many Africans had been arrested after finding out that they got IDs illegally, a policeman affirmed, but he did not mention the number, the place of their detention and the number of issues; whether they were referred to justice or not.

In fact what is going here is even more interesting: some officials not only allow illegal immigrants to bribe their way to the papers that will get them a national ID, but they have an absolute incentive to do so, which is that you can’t vote without an ID cards.

An election committee chief in Hajjah province got surprised when he discovered that the number of the registered people in the electoral district is twice the population number.

The same problem crops up time and time again. Identity documents become the target of criminal enterprise and because they don’t work properly they deliver terrific profits to the bad guys without really helping the good guys very much.

The most wanted are Serbian biometric passports, “which cost up to EUR 3,000”, the article claims.

[From B92 – News – Crime & War crimes – “Albanians pay EUR 3,000 for Serbian passports”]

You can see the problem. If the state relies on an ID card to regulate its relationship with citizens and that ID card embodies certain entitlements (that is, it is not simply an identity) then the incentive to get one shoots up, because once you have it then you are “inside the wire”, so to speak, and can act with impunity. So long as the card actually works, of course.

About 10% of the 24 million MyKad identification cards issued since 2001 had been replaced after they were found to be faulty.

[From 10% of MyKad identification cards found to be faulty]

If 1 in 10 ID cards isn’t working properly, then people will get used to that fact, so if a criminal shows up with an ID card that doesn’t work, the shopkeeper/doorman/whoever will assume that it’s broken and take it at face value, so I could stick my picture on any old ID card, that put the card in the microwave to fry the chip. This isn’t really progress, is it.

In the cases shown here, no-one in Malaysia or Yemen is able to tell a false ID card or an ID card obtained with false papers from a real ID card, so the card stimulates further crime. That’s clearly the case, because, as I have repeatedly pointed out, the more places that you are required to identify yourself, then the more likely your identity is to be stolen.

Burglars breaking into factories are targeting passports of foreign workers kept by the factories’ management. It is believed that their motive is to sell the stolen passports to syndicates which, in turn, sell the documents to foreigners entering the country on social visit passes, thus enabling them to work in Malaysia. Batu Pahat deputy police chief Superintendent Adnan Azizon said so far this year, there had been 23 cases of factories being broken into, six of which resulted in 532 foreign workers’ passports being stolen.

[From Asiaone – S’pore firm offers]

I am not, by the way, ignoring the beam in our own eye, as it were. Passports get stolen in the UK as well.

Hundreds of passports have gone missing every year despite the Government’s switch to a secure courier service in 2004 instead of using Royal Mail to deliver the documents. The official figures, which revealed that 3,500 passports had disappeared in the last five years, were described as “alarming” and sparked security fears over identity theft.

[From Express.co.uk – Home of the Daily and Sunday Express | UK News :: Security fears over 3,500 passports ‘lost’ in the post]

Couldn’t we go to a system like for credit cards, where your passport isn’t activated until you call in after receiving it? No, of course not, unless every “read” of your passport was online to some database somewhere, which it wasn’t when I left the UK this afternoon: an immigration officer had a quick look to see that it looked vaguely real. And when I reach my destination, that passport will be scanned and stored in a database, but if the passport says that I’m Glenn Miller then that’s what I’ll become at my destination, since the destination has absolutely no way of knowing whether I am entitled to be using that passport or not. As you may have noticed in the newspapers of late.

The Irish government says the passport numbers publicised by Dubai authorities also are counterfeits, because they have the wrong number of digits and contain no letters.

[From Dubai Hamas assassination: suspects used fake passports – Telegraph]

You can’t blame the Dubai border control: they have no online link to the Ireland to check the passport, and there are many reasons why no nation would want every country in the world to have access to its passport database anyway. In fact, the mere existence of such a database is a risk in its own right!

A similar database, containing the identity details of Israeli citizens, was leaked a few years ago from the Interior Ministry and can be download today, for free.

[From Will biometric passports hurt the outreach of Israel’s intelligence? – Haaretz – Israel News]

It isn’t just border control agents (and mafia bosses and spys and journalists) who would like access to a world database of valid identities.

High street banks have called on the government to set up a database to help them identify forged foreign passports.

[From BBC NEWS | Business | Fake passports prompt fraud fear]

But I digress. We can all benefit from a national ID card if we separate the identity from the carrier and separate the credentials from the identification. Oh, and we need a multi-level authentication system too.

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

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