Finally, somebody covering the national ID card debate in Britain seems to have recognized that the key issue is not the card itself. Writing in the Guardian, Alan Travis says:

… the debate has moved on. Now it is about how much information the government has on each of us, what the authorities want to do with it, and what rights are lost by those who don’t have what is, after all, officially being called an “entitlement” card. The real dangers now are over “function creep” and what will happen to a new cardless underclass who could be called the* sans plastiques* — a new British cousin for the French sans papiers.

… as [Home Secretary David] Blunkett‘s white paper last July made clear, the proposal is really about setting up the first national central database of all people over 16, including foreign nationals, who are legally resident in Britain. It is this register, and not the bit of plastic in our wallet, that causes the real anxiety.

I’m glad somebody in the media has finally realised this. When Britain last had national identity papers, the privacy issue that upset people was whether police could demand papers at will and fine them for not carrying them. Unfortunately, many commentators on ID cards seem to think that this would be is the major issue should Britain reinstitute papers (or, rather, plastic). But the degree of administrative power conferred by the new system would be vastly greater because unlike the old identity papers, the new ID card would be linked to a remotely-accessible database which could be used by various government agencies for various tasks of social sorting. Moreover, this database would inevitably succumb to what Travis (and many others) call “function creep.”

It’s a very good example of the growth of what sociologist Michael Mann calls “infrastructural power” — the ability of organisations, particularly the state, to directly intervene in, micromanage, or generally “penetrate” people’s everyday lives. This is the most common form of modern power in modern liberal democracies, and is rather different from the blunt “despotic power” characteristic of regimes like the one recently deposed in Iraq.

Some very interesting sociological research on the issue of surveillance, databases, data mining, and identity is being done by The Surveillance Project at the Queen’s University in Canada. An excellent book on recent work in the emerging sociology of surveillance is Surveillance as Social Sorting, a collection edited by the head of that research group, Prof.** David Lyon**.

A major theme of this new sociology of surveillance is that we need to get away from the paranoid “Weberian/Orwellian” conception of centralized state surveillance, and recognize that contemporary surveillance is performed by a multitude of agencies, although the state can, through the power of subpoena, ultimately appropriate whatever data the private “surveillant assemblage” has generated.Travis touches on this as well when he notes the spread of supermarket loyalty cards, which gather data for marketing purposes.

Blunkett’s database, however, should make us aware that Leviathan isn’t quite finished yet. Nevertheless, I’m glad Michael Moore made me see the connection between theory and practice and chopped up my Sainsbury’s card.

Update: Hang on a minute! Is the Guardian recycling old stories?!