Thought the British blogosphere was as one in opposition to the introduction of national identity cards? Nope. Monjo provides some dissent by posting in defence of ID cards, interestingly by deploying the very slippery slope argument many use to reject the same policy:

…I wonder mostly what benefits the ID card could bring. I think there must be a lot of fake claims for social security, I think there must be a lot of banking fraud, identity theft crimes are one of the fastest-growing and economically most damaging areas or crimes we now face. I also see a lot of inconvenience in having to carry varying identity documents anyway: national insurance number, driving licence (well if I could drive), passport, documents to prove my address, etc. There is a lot of rigmarole in opening up bank accounts, applying for passports, and numerous other daily concerns for millions of Brits.

The important thing is to realise this is a mere first step. The scheme can (and will) be extended to become more encompassing over time. For instance, the cards could eventually contain digital signatures (for online purchasing), or be used, in combination with a thumb print scanner, to enter buildings, get into one’s own home, or start a car. Combined with GPS, car insurance, road taxes and car theft detection could be revolutionised.

There is the possibility for so much. And it doesn’t bother me. I don’t even care about the cost. If it is done over someone’s lifetime it may be £2500 per person in today’s money, but that’s only £30 a year. Even if we assume it may not have any direct financial savings, there will be indirect ones — things people haven’t imagined yet. The fact each card will be unique and will be linked to a centralised database should also secure the system against forgery. Though who guards the guards?

There is a lot to disagree with here. First, there is the issue of financing ID cards with a fee. Monjo may not, but I care about this cost. Paying for a compulsory ID card is the functional equivalent of a poll tax. If the Government wants to do this, they should at least pay for it out of general taxation.

More substantially, though, Monjo is right to criticise the vague Orwellian invocations used against the ID card scheme. In the age of the decentralised “surveillant assemblage”, as Kevin Haggerty and Richard Ericson called it, the notion of a monolithic Big Brother is outdated and unhelpful way to conceptualise contemporary surviellance. Far more agencies than just those of the state will make use of a centralised database.

It’s also a mistake to frame opposition to centralised databases of people around a liberal-individualist concern about privacy. The big problem with surviellance technologies today is that they facilitate “social sorting” — the use of databases to create classes of people for the purposes of precision marketing, selective electioneering, or all sorts of economic discrimination that undermine the equality of citizens. In other words, you don’t matter nearly as much as the database categories you will fall into.

A central database linked to biometric identity cards will create a definitive primary key linking individuals’ bodies to all manner of data about them. This will facilitate social sorting by making many existing databases interoperable.

David Lyon, a sociologist at Queen’s University in Canada is one of the leading academic researchers on the social consequences of surviellance technologies. Everybody should be reading his paper on ID cards and social sorting (PDF). Here’s the rub:

With the use of biometric ID cards, the codes that determine the status of those who hold (or do not hold) the cards are increasingly related to bodily and behavioural characteristics. This further abstracts from the narratives of ordinary life and struggle experienced by those who are most vulnerable. As Didier Bigo (2004) suggests, biometric ID cards produce not so much a panopticon as a banopticon. In other words, they are not meant to put all under scrutiny, but to single out the exceptions as quickly as possible. Profiling to discover differences, the banopticon channels flows of information in order to control at a distance any who deviate from the coded norms.

So Monjo is right: the ID card system will facilitate all sorts of things in the future. While some of those will be benefitial and convenient, however, some are likely to have negative social consequences. Enthusiasm about possible future applications of the centralised identity register can be an argument for ID cards, but worry about them is equally a good reason to oppose the plan.