|Montreal, February 15, 2003 / No 119|
by Ralph Maddocks
A topic which has raised its ugly head again is that of ID Cards, biometric ID cards no less. It was raised immediately in the aftermath of 911, or 119 for those who prefer this date style, and then seemed to sink silently into that bourn from which no politically unacceptable idea returns. Then a few weeks ago it came back, this time proposed by the Honourable Denis Coderre, Canada's Minister of Immigration, who seems to believe that an ID card containing biometric information would enhance security and reduce identity fraud.
Despite the fact that such a card complete with fingerprint or retinal
pattern is most likely forbidden by the Canadian Charter of Rights, such
biometric identity cards have been banned by Philippine courts, prohibited
by Hungary's constitution and almost caused the collapse of the Australian
government at the end of the 1980s. Having to produce such a card to buy
a car, to buy a video, to open a bank account, to get on a plane, to travel
the country or even to walk in Canadian streets is a distinctly un-Canadian
idea. It would mean that Canada has changed from a free society to a totalitarian
state, a state which some believe is already under construction – if not
already in existence.
It isn't very difficult to figure out what the probable result of such an ID card might be. There would be an immediate increase in so-called racial profiling, another huge database would have to be constructed if the one concealed within Bill S-23 to keep track of all Canadian travellers is not big enough. Pressure would doubtless then be applied to Canada by the USA to grant their Immigration, Customs and FBI access privileges. Otherwise, how could US Immigration agents be able to check one's identity and biometric characteristics? Unless they were prepared to create their own database, built up one ID at a time, the Americans would have no choice since the first time a person crossed the border they would have no way of knowing whether that person was who they claimed to be. Next there would come requests from Interpol for access to the database for the same reasons. Then would come the EUSSR, and before you know it the whole world will have access to it.
According to a report in The Guardian, the United Kingdom's domestic security service, MI5 has long been at work connecting all that country's databases to give access, "for reasons other than national security" to "personal information held on tens of millions of people, from tax files to criminal convictions." Now that you have stopped laughing, you need to know that Mr. Blair and his minions are planning to add the DNA records of all suspects to their database, suspects not just convicted criminals.
Back in Canada, at the Commons Committee hearings on the topic, Committee Chairman, Liberal MP Joe Fontana, offered the opinion that the Honourable Denis Coderre's idea wasn't getting the support he'd hoped for, saying, "I haven't heard one person come up to the committee and say, 'This is the greatest idea since sliced bread. Why don't you do it?'" Even a Canadian Alliance MP changed her mind about supporting the proposal on the grounds of privacy and potential cost. The New Democrat MP, Joe Comartin, perhaps put his finger, though perhaps not its print, on it when he said that the ID card is another panicky response to American pressure following the September 11 terrorist attacks, saying, "We have integrated our economy so much with the Americans, we have a very hard time saying No to them."
I suppose that if the project were to be approved in the House of Commons by the usual collection of elected but pliant nobodies – to use Pierre Trudeau's felicitous description –, it would be handed over to those wonderful people who gave us that model of Liberal governmental efficiency, Bill C-68, An Act respecting firearms and other weapons, (aka the Firearms Act). Since the government fudges the numbers of guns actually registered it is impossible to know how many gun owners have been, or will be, registered for the estimated $1 billion it is to cost us. What a biometric ID card might cost us will be many times greater than that simply because there are, presumably, more people living in Canada than there are gun owners.
Issuing an ID card would not be just a case of sending in a cheque and a form containing highly intrusive personal information in order to be given a card with your name and photograph on it. It would require the purchase by the government – using our taxes – of thousands of iris scanners, at heaven knows what cost, plus whatever equipment is needed to read them. Iris scanning technology reads 266 different characteristics as opposed to fingerprint technology which reads about 90, which is why it is considered the best system for these purposes. If the latter are to be used by the police, and only the mentally afflicted might think that they will not, then each squad car and police station would require such devices. According to Statscan, there were some 58,000 police officers employed in Canada in 2002.
Almost ten years ago, the UK government issued an estimate that a compulsory ID card, complete with photo, fingerprint, date of birth and signature, would cost $1.5 billion with annual maintenance costs of $250 million. However, in Canada, given the recent experience mentioned above we might be forgiven for thinking that the wrong computers might be bought, the programming would not work or be incompatible with other data bases and so on. We could expect that the data would be entered wrongly in many cases, wrong names would appear on cards or the photographs would not match. There would undoubtedly be hacking of the databases, either by thrill seeking teenagers or by criminals, or simply by some who oppose such measures.
Recently in Quebec, we have seen some of its not-so-civil servants imprisoned for selling database information to criminal elements. I could not find any Canadian data, but again, the UK National Audit reported in 1994 that 35% of the 12 million driver records and 25% of the 9 million vehicle records contained at least one error. In a multilingual country such as Canada can we reasonably expect a better result, especially as the information collected will be considerable? Even with my own Welsh name I have spent my lifetime correcting the misspellings appearing in various documents, and I am talking about dealings with people and officials who speak my own language. Imagine what may be happening to people with names like Slejskova or Szutkowski when they apply for ID cards.
The Honourable Denis Coderre, stating the obvious, said "Iris scan, facial recognition or fingerprints are unique to each of us and can be used to verify one's identity," He believed that they would stop identity fraud. He said also that, "I want to make sure that when individuals go to certain borders, that they will be protected. That it means something to be a Canadian citizen." This is code for saying that it would answer US government calls for tighter border security. He gave it away later when he added that "The time when Canadians and permanent residents could be confident of crossing the border into the United States solely on the basis of a valid driver's licence may well be over."
Now, in the last forty five years of crossing the US border, I have never produced even a driver's licence and have only been asked where I lived and where I was born. The last time I crossed I was asked if I was carrying more than $10,000 in cash, a question which reduced me to paroxysms of laughter, although the humourless US Immigration agent did not seem to share my mirth. Having watched the paranoia building in the USA since the events of 2001, and their firm and growing belief that Canada is engaged in the business of preparing and dispatching terrorists to them, I suppose that one should not be surprised by US demands for what they consider to be better identification procedures at their borders. Indeed under the USA Patriot Act, passed by the US Congress, all Canadian citizens and landed immigrants will need ID with either a fingerprint or an eye scan to permit entry into the US. An act from which our government is alleged to be seeking an exemption for Canadians. If I believed this were possible, I would heartily wish them success.
The Honourable Denis Coderre did not explain why a Canadian passport was no longer sufficient to make one feel that it means something to be a Canadian citizen. There was a time when the Canadian passport was the one most sought after by the criminal fraternity, because it was the easiest to obtain illegally. Perhaps this is still true, which may be another reason lying behind the demand for a biometric ID card. When asked if he was prepared to hold a referendum on the subject he remarked, rather glibly I thought, that Quebec has had enough referendums and that he would not be holding one. The subtext being that why should we hold a referendum when we have a willing, acquiescent body of Mr. Trudeau's "nobodies" to demonstrate their full agreement with whatever outrageous suggestions we would wish to enact into law.
The possible reasons for having identity cards, or entitlement cards as they are known euphemistically in the UK, are really very few. Perhaps if one is seeking some kind of benefit from the state, or some other institution, or perhaps if one is arrested upon suspicion of a crime. Various governments have been urging them upon their citizenry for years as a solution to almost every kind of problem, from credit card fraud to impersonation in elections or driving tests, to illegal immigrants or terrorists to identifying criminals.
Policemen, whose natural tendency is to look for anything which would make their jobs easier, think that ID cards would be of great advantage to them because it would make identification easier when a suspect lies to them. For this to be so assumes that the ID card produced is indeed that of the suspect and not that of some innocent whose identity has been stolen or manufactured to fit. For it to be of any possible use it has to be examined by a policeman and if the suspect does not or cannot produce one, the policeman will not be able to do this. The next complaint will be that carrying an ID card must be made compulsory as it is in the democracies of the EUSSR like France. The Honourable Denis Coderre spoke of his proposed ID card as being voluntary, but he must know that a voluntary government issued ID card would be of very little use if a large section of the population did not volunteer to obtain one. That is unless he was thinking only in terms of crossing the US border, which as the MP, Joe Comartin, has suggested was really the reason for it in the first place.
If anyone imagines that those with a real interest in hiding their true identity will not go to the trouble and expense of procuring a number of alternate identities complete with fingerprint or iris pattern then they are living in a world about which I know nothing. I once watched the CBS Sunday evening news show, Sixty Minutes, in which their reporter was able to buy, for around $120, a green card, a social security card and a driving licence, all within a couple of hours. What exactly is it that is going to stop some determined confidence trickster from obtaining any number of documents, including forged ID cards with biometric characteristics? One reads of the impersonation of policemen, electricity metre readers, telephone engineers, etc., gaining access to people's homes to rob them. All these people can proffer proper identification, but who among us would know if it was forged or not? In most cases where such impersonation has taken place, the owner of the property did not ask to see it anyway.
Already, we are collecting information about Canadian air travellers. Add to this the information on the new biometric ID card, then hook up the government's computers to commercial databases such as those held by the banks and credit companies and you have a pretty good way of keeping track of someone. Add in tax computers and computerised medical records and the government will be able to know a great deal more about you than you probably think it has any right to know. Given all governments' obsession with money laundering we can expect a move towards the "smart cards" now being tested in the USA.
An extract from one company's Web site reads as follows: "Citizens' Cards are smart cards developed for use in individual, closed community schemes within which local citizens are each provided with a single card capable of performing many useful and convenient functions relating both to Local Authority services and to a variety of commercial applications. People living in a community can therefore replace many existing cards with a single Citizens' Card, and can use this for Proof of Age, educational services, as a library card, for access to leisure facilities, for mass transport, as well as for commercial functions. In some situations, such a scheme may have limited interoperability with other schemes, or may include national applications such as citizen ID."
Those who would make the argument: "Those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear", assume that the largely benign state in which we live at present will remain thus. The problem has to do with the incremental addition and use of new technologies in our lives. Each addition seems so innocuous. Quebec's proposed smart medical card, once enacted, will be accessible not just to the medical community, but ways will be found to see that the data makes its way into the databases of insurance companies for example. Already when you fill in a life or long term disability insurance application form you grant the insurer the right to see your medical records. Then the insurer discovers that you have some genetic disorder which will mean your immobilisation from some wasting muscle disease before you are fifty. There are no prizes for guessing whether your application will be approved or not.
Given the proliferation of video surveillance cameras, add in face recognition and access to commercial database transactions and the police can check if you bought a larger amount of fertilizer than someone thinks appropriate. Or maybe those pornographic videos you buy may mean that you have paedophilic tendencies and suddenly those hard faced men are waking you up at dawn. They even hand out awards (the Gold Assessment and Accreditation Award) in the UK to local authorities whose camera surveillance systems meet the standards set by the CCTV User Group. What all this amounts to is granting the government, at any level, the right and ability to persecute you should it, or one of its servants, so wish. Proposals for installing mandatory GPS systems in your car added to video surveillance, and your "smart" card trail will not leave you with very much privacy, but then "Those with nothing to hide have nothing to fear", as some say.
Some proponents of ID cards, point to the fact that one biometric card could replace several of those pieces of plastic which already fill our wallets. A belief founded in fact, but having one or two cards will inexorably lead to demands to connect more of the databases and therein lies madness.
ID cards seem so reasonable and unthreatening, but ask a surviving Rwandan what they think about them, or better still, ask survivors of the Holocaust what they think; and their ID cards were not all that sophisticated. Somebody, somewhere, can be following your movements and activities, and then maybe you start to have feelings of paranoia. Your individuality is beginning to disappear bit by bit and you begin to feel as those living in the Middle Ages must have felt when they walked through the village crying "Unclean, unclean!" It will be like standing alone on some theatre stage, except that you cannot see the audience but you know full well that they have all paid the admission fee.
Think about the growth of health fascism, already there are reports of doctors refusing to treat patients who smoke because they don't like their patient's lifestyles. The next attack seems to be lining up against fast food enthusiasts. So will your daily fix of cheeseburger and coffee finger you to the health fascists? All of us, in one way or another, are members of such a minority and how can we be sure that our membership in that group, considered innocuous today, may not become the target of someone's hatred somewhere tomorrow? Does anyone remember the late and unlamented Quebec Premier Maurice Duplessis? He didn't like Jehovah's Witnesses very much and not having ID cards didn't stop him harassing them as I recall. Many of our fellow citizens need some kind of biometric identification at their places of work, and the biometric industry, according to the US National Biometrics Test Center, has grown from $6.6 million in 1990 to $63 million in 1999, and in another five years it is expected to top $500 million in sales. These people have no apparent incentive to oppose biometric ID cards.
Living in a largely socialist welfare society means that some forms of identification become mandatory in order to draw those benefits for which our excessive taxes pay. But this could be solved quite simply by giving all such recipients a biometric card to prove their entitlement to the particular benefit until such time as it is no longer needed, at which point it could be withdrawn and destroyed. If we had less government in our lives we would all be better off but I doubt if this will happen in my lifetime. Among Canadian political parties only the Action démocratique du Québec seems prepared to talk, tentatively enough, about reducing the size of the state.
Those puzzled by the title of this piece may be interested to learn that Dire Encoders is an anagram of Denis Coderre and that, rather serendipitously, Discard is an anagram of ID Cards, a fate which, it is devoutly to be hoped, may befall this latest liberticidal idea and its proponent.
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