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Identity infrastructure in the UK is a complete mess. Why don’t we think again about what we actually want identity to do in a digital age and then start designing a system to do it. Maybe some kind of digital passport would be a start.

We really don’t know what we’re doing when it comes to ID in this country. No-one seems to have any vision as to what a shared national ID infrastructure should actually do, and as a consequence no-one is in a position to engage with the technologists that are building several of them for specific purposes. The “system” that we have now is worse than having no system at all because it pretends to deliver security where there is none. And in the day-to-day existence of the typical member of the public, it is nothing but a total nuisance.

An 85-year-old woman was left stranded and in floods of tears at Stansted Airport after Ryanair refused to accept her bus pass as ID for a return flight to Edinburgh.

[From Grandmother stranded at Stansted Airport after Ryanair refuses bus pass as ID | Daily Mail Online]

This story caught my eye because I thought that in this United Kingdom we had already decided that the bus pass is the new gold standard for personal identification for travel purposes. In fact, we’ve gone further: the bus pass is such a secure document and so impossible to obtain fraudulently or to counterfeit that a mere photocopy of a bus pass is considered sufficient.

A retired teacher used a photocopy of his bus pass to board a flight home to the UK after his passport was stolen while on a family holiday in Spain.

[From Retired teacher, 65, used a photocopy of his BUS PASS to board Ryanair flight from Spain to the UK after his passport was stolen | Daily Mail Online]

So on Ryanair, at least, an actual bus pass is considered not to be an identification document but a photocopy of one is. Can you see why I find identity confusing? Anyway, I didn’t realise that the environment had changed in this way and nor, apparently, did the poor grandmother referred to above. With a little foresight, the lady in question could have simply picked up an inexpensive Portugese fishing licence or some other, similar strong identification token and used it instead of her bus pass. Such tokens are readily available throughout our United Kingdom and far less hassle to obtain than an actual identity document.

A pair of fraudsters orchestrated one of Britain’s biggest-ever fake ID scams by selling thousands of counterfeit documents on the black market for as little as £50.

[From Forgers behind one of Britain’s biggest-ever fake ID scams sold thousands of counterfeit passports and driving licences for as little as £50 | Daily Mail Online]

Ah, but, I am sure you are thinking, it’s all very well for Dave to take the piss out of our shambolic and dangerous ID “system” but the truth is that these fake IDs are for kids to get into pubs. They’re not used by jihadis rallying to the ISIS cause (she just used her sister’s passport, not a fake one) or people trying to infiltrate, for example, the Mother of Parliaments. Oh, wait…

An illegal immigrant worked in a House of Commons cafe for two months before security noticed she had simply glued her picture onto a fake Swedish passport.

[From Illegal immigrant landed job in House of Commons with forged passport | Daily Mail Online]

The illegal immigrant, from Sierra Leone, simply glued her picture into a fake Swedish passport. And that was enough to get her into the Palace of Westminster. I really hope that the powers that be want to build a new infrastructure that is better than this. Now, suppose that instead of a physical passport, we had digital passports. How might your digital passport work?

Well, imagine that I put myself forward for a job as a cleaner at the House of Commons. I turn up for the interview and I run the “UK Passport” app on my phone. The interviewer runs the “UK Passport” app on his phone and selects “request eligibility to work”. The app uses NFC or Bluetooth or whatever to ask my passport for work permit details and these are sent to the interviewers phone. The interviewers app can instantly check the digital signature on the work permit to see whether it came from the Home Office or is a forgery. Assuming it is really, the permit is pinged to the Home Office to check it is still valid and the home office returns either the photograph of the holder if it is or a red cross if it isn’t. That’s all the interviewer sees: either my picture or a red cross. End of.

Digital passports can do things that paper passports cannot (e.g., question other passports). Let’s get started on delivering them.


  1. There are groups in the UK who are determined there will never be a national ID or entitlement system, I don’t think it is politically possible to introduce any government controlled system, even an entirely voluntary one (the last attempt was in fact for a voluntary ID card and had hardly got started before it was abolished when the current government came to power).

    That means we have to go on using passports and bus passes and driving licences.

  2. Yes, “ID is in a complete mess”.

    Like you, I have thought for years that the mess could be cleaned up with digital certificates, see for example my May 2003 proposal to the Home Office for dematerialised ID.

    The fact that the mess hasn’t been cleaned up is odd. And odd things need investigation. It might be useful if a future post of yours addresses the question why the mess hasn’t been cleaned up. Who knows? There could be good reasons.

  3. There’s a whole extra layer of wrong you are missing here because in Scotland, the OAP bus pass basically IS a national identity card. Since they came to power the SNP have been moving towards creating a centralised identity system based around the NHS Scotland database. Bus passes for seniors are linked into this and are effectively at least national entitlement cards if not full identity cards. There’s currently legislation going through Holyrood aimed at sharing the NHS database with nationally vital institutions such as the Scottish meat marketing board and the Forestry Commission.

    This doesn’t apply to bus passes for non-OAPs which are just bus passes.

  4. trick is to make it useful. A few years ago, nobody wanted cookies, but now nobody cares, as long as they get free xyz

    I think Alan might be right that the government couldn’t do it, but maybe someone else could…

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