Roger Ratcliffe admits to
having a bit of an
identity problem

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Like most people I hate filling in forms, especially online. I usually click the button at the end to finish the process only to be scolded: “Fields highlighted in red must be completed.”

Having just sat at my laptop for what seemed like an age to renew my passport and driving license I can now prove who I am, but a few days after all the questions had been answered and boxes ticked I discovered that this is still not good enough for some politicians. Out of the blue, ex-prime minister Tony Blair and former Tory leader William Hague issued a joint call for everyone in the UK to be required to have digital IDs.

Basically these would reduce us all to QR codes. On paper (or more appropriately pixels) it looks like a useful way of pulling together data relating to our interactions with public services, from income tax to national insurance to NHS records. Even grades we got in exams would be available to show prospective employers. But what other personal information might digital barcodes contain?

Once I started thinking about their potential scope my mind raced with paranoid fears. Perhaps there might be records of online petitions I’ve signed, my tweets on anti-government issues, how I vote in elections, fixed penalties paid for speeding and parking… Hell, even fines for overdue library books could be in there, I sweated, and all of it run through algorithms to create my digital identity, award me a digital score and perhaps one day cause problems. I could hear the voice of David Walliams in Little Britain saying: “Computer says no.”

Okay, a few of those fears are over the top but I’m not the only one seeing something sinister in digital IDs. The civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch condemned it as conceivably one of the biggest assaults on privacy ever suggested in the UK, leading to a database-driven state that could be abused by an authoritarian government. As it happens, there are more than a few politicians in today’s House of Commons I can imagine relishing the idea of keeping an all-knowing eye on each and every one of us.

It comes at a time when the subject of identity cards is already embroiled in controversy. Starting with this May’s local elections, voters in England will need to produce photo ID at polling stations to get a ballot paper. Acceptable forms of ID include passport, driving license, blue badge, and concessionary travel pass. Not acceptable – and this is telling – are student cards and young people’s travel passes. To me, these exclusions suggest this Tory government has an ulterior motive. Since younger people are more likely to vote Labour, Lib Dem or Green it’s being made harder for them to prove their entitlement to vote.

Older, more disadvantaged people in society also face difficulties. Many who are without acceptable forms of ID either don’t know about or won’t bother to apply for a new Voter Authority Certificate, which the government claims addresses criticism of the photo ID rule. Sure enough, by last week only 1 per cent of those without valid documents had signed up to the scheme. This looks like a deliberate attempt at widespread disenfranchisement.

Even without Blair and Hague’s spooky scheme, the whole issue of ID is being weaponised to create a society in which there are Orwellian non-persons.

Roger Ratcliffe has worked as an investigative journalist with the Sunday Times Insight team and is the author of guidebooks to Leeds and Bradford. Follow him on Twitter @Ratcliffe

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