IDentity politics: new biometric cards for foreign nationals

The government aims to roll out the widely opposed scheme initially to foreign students and those coming to the UK on marriage visas. Starting from November 2008, they will have to apply for biometric residence permits or biometric visas and their details will be entered into a national identity database. The Home Office expects that more than 90 percent of foreign nationals will be holding a card by 2015. Since 2002, all asylum applicants have to carry similar cards, called Application Registration Cards (ARC).

The new ID cards will become compulsory from 2009 for all airline and airport workers and employees in other ‘sensitive’ areas of the UK economy, estimated at 200,000, as a precondition for employment. From 2010, students will be ‘encouraged’ to get ID cards when they open bank accounts. From 2011/12, the Identity and Passport Service plans to issue “significant volumes” of ID cards alongside British passports, but people will apparently be able to opt out of having a card. However, everyone aged over 16 applying for a passport will have their details, including fingerprints and facial scans, added to a national identity register.

The introduction of ID cards for a vulnerable group of society such as foreign nationals, who are unable to refuse, has been criticised as a “softening-up exercise.” Phil Booth, head of the national No2ID campaign group, said: “The Home Office is trying to salami-slice the population to get this scheme going in any way they can. Once they get some people to take the card, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

This is not the first time foreign nationals or migrants have been used as guinea pigs to test a law or technology. Examples include the Asylum Registration Cards, prisoner electronic tags and asylum vouchers, to name but a few.

Between 50,000 and 60,000 cards, which will initially cost £30 each, will be issued by the end of next March. From 2010 on, it is predicted that one million cards will be handed out every year. The overall cost of the scheme is said to be £5.6bn, but the actual cost has been subject to conflicting calculations by the government and critics of the scheme.

Besides carrying the name, date of birth, nationality and photograph, the new ID card will have information about the holder’s immigration status and right to work. A microchip in the card will also link to a biometric database holding the person’s fingerprints and a digital image of the holder’s face. Plans to include iris and facial scan have been dropped, as have plans for a single database holding the personal information of all those issued with a card due to cost and data security concerns. Instead, information will be stored on three separate existing government databases.

Protests against the new ID cards are already taking place. On September 4th, over 30 people joined a protest organised by No Borders South Wales outside the Passport Office in Newport. Thousands of copies of a leaflet, produced especially for the event, were distributed to members of the public. The leaflet, titled “Big Brother is coming”, made the point that these new ID cards are not only “a repressive measure against migrants” but also the first shot in an attack against everyone’s freedom.

The decision to introduce a national identity scheme was announced in the Queen’s Speech in May 2005. The Identity Cards Act received royal assent to becoming law on 30 March, 2006. Under the original plans, the first British citizens would have been issued with ID cards in 2008, with the widespread roll-out taking place in 2010.

There has been a fierce opposition to the compulsory biometric ID cards from a wide range of groups and campaigns, as well as mainstream politicians and political parties. The House of Lords rejected the plans five times before agreeing on the compromise deal allowing the initial opt-out from 2008. The TUC has resolved to oppose “with all means at its disposal” the planned compulsory cards for airline and airport workers. Even the Conservatives are against the scheme and have promised to scrap it if they come into power.

As well infringing civil liberties, such cards are seen as yet another tool in the hands of the ‘Big Brother state’, already marked by CCTV cameras everywhere, tracking online habits, email surveillance, phone tapping and airport body X-ray machines. Additionally, whatever public support existed for ID cards has been hit by a series of data loss incidents. The personal information, including bank details, of 25 million people were lost when two computer discs belonging to HM Revenue and Customs went missing last November.

Since then, the government’s rhetoric on ID cards’ supposed benefits has intensified. It is claimed they will combat such ‘crimes’ as ‘illegal’ migration and identity fraud and, of course, form a crucial part of the ‘counter-terrorism’ measures. At the unveiling of the card design, Jackie Smith said, “We all want to see our borders more secure and human trafficking, organised immigration crime, illegal working and benefit fraud tackled. ID cards will make it easier for employers and sponsors to check entitlement to work and study and for the UK Border Agency to verify someone’s identity.”

Despite the political ramifications of ID cards, much of the public debate seems to focus on the question of national or European symbols. The new credit card-sized plastic card will carry, in common with other EU identity cards, a picture of a bull (representing Europe) as well as five stars drawn from the stars on the EU flag. On the back, it will also feature a rose, thistle, shamrock and daffodil, the plants representing the four countries of the UK. The government has been accused by nationalists that the use of EU symbols instead of national ones is part of a wider trend to promote a “common European citizenship”. In defence, Home Secretary Jackie Smith pointed out, when revealing the design last month, that the pink and blue card displayed the UK Government’s coat of arms on the front.

For more information, see www.no2id.net. See also Corporate Watch’s 2006 report Corporate Identity: www.corporatewatch.org.uk/?lid=2298.

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