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If you have ID cards, drink alcohol

One of the key identifiers of an addiction is that indulgence in it persists long after all the reasons for doing it have turned from good to bad.

A sobered-up Scottish alcoholic once told me the following examplar of alcoholic thinking. A professor is lecturing to a class of alcoholics on the evils of drinking. To make his point, he takes two glasses, one filled with water, the other with alcohol. Into each glass he drops a live worm. The worm in the glass of water lives; the worm in the glass of alcohol dies.

"What," the professor asks, "can we learn from this?"

One of the alcoholics raises his hand. "If you have worms, drink alcohol."

In alcoholic thinking, of course, there is no circumstance in which the answer isn't "Drink alcohol."

So, too, with the ID card. The purpose as mooted between 2001 and 2004 was preventing benefit fraud and making life more convenient for UK citizens and residents. The plan promised perfect identification via the combination of a clean database (the National Identity Register) and biometrics (fingerprints and iris scans). The consultation document made a show of suggesting the cheaper alternative of a paper card with minimal data collection, but it was clear what they really wanted: the big, fancy stuff that would make them the envy of other major governments.

Opponents warned of the UK's poor track record with large IT projects, the privacy-invasiveness, and the huge amount such a system was likely to cost. Government estimates, now at £5.4 billion, have been slowly rising to meet Privacy International's original estimate of £6 billion.

By 2006, when the necessary legislation was passed, the government had abandoned the friendly "entitlement card" language and was calling it a national ID card. By then, also, the case had changed: less entitlement, more crime prevention.

It's 2008, and the wheels seem to be coming off. The government's original contention that the population really wanted ID cards has been shredded by the leaked documents of the last few weeks. In these, it's clear that the government knows the only way it will get people to adopt the ID card is by coercion, starting with the groups who are least able to protest by refusal: young people and foreigners.

Almost every element deemed important in the original proposal is now gone - the clean database populated through interviews and careful documentation (now the repurposed Department of Work and Pensions database); the iris scans (discarded); probably the fingerprints (too expensive except for foreigners). The one element that for sure remains is the one the government denied from the start: compulsion.

The government was always open about its intention for non-registration to become increasingly uncomfortable and eventually to make registration compulsory. But if the card is coming at least two years later than they intended, compulsion is ahead of schedule.

Of course, we've always maintained that the key to the project is the database, not the card. It's an indicator of just how much of a mess the project is that the Register, the heart of the system, was first to be scaled back because of its infeasibility. (I mean, really, guys. Interview and background-check the documentation of every one of 60 million people in any sort of reasonable time scale?)

The project is even fading in popularity with the very vendors who want to make money supplying the IT for it. How can you specify a system whose stated goals keep changing?

The late humorist and playwright Jean Kerr (probably now best known for her collection of pieces about raising five boys with her drama critic husband in a wacky old house in Larchmont, NY, Please Don't Eat the Daisies) once wrote a piece about the trials and tribulations of slogging through the out-of-town openings of one of her plays. In these pre-Broadway trial runs, lines get cut and revised; performances get reshaped and tightened. If the play is in trouble, the playwright gets no sleep for weeks. And then, she wrote, one day you look up at the stage, and, yes, the play is much better, and the performances are much better, and the audience seems to be having a good time. And yet - the play you're seeing on the stage isn't the play you had in mind at all.

It's one thing to reach that point in a project and retain enough perspective to be honest about it. It may be bad - but it isn't insane - to say, "Well, this play isn't what I had in mind, but you know, the audience is having a good time, and it will pay me enough to go away and try again."

But if you reach the point where the project you're pushing ahead clearly isn't any more the project you had in mind and sold hard, and yet you continue to pretend to yourself and everyone else that it is - then you have the kind of insanity problem where you're eating worms in order to prove you're not an alcoholic.

The honorable thing for the British government to do now is say, "Well, folks, we were wrong. Our opponents were right: the system we had in mind is too complicated, too expensive, and too unpopular because of its privacy-invasiveness. We will think again." Apparently they're so far gone that eating worms looks more sensible.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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