Tony Blair and William Hague call for digital ID cards
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Imagine not having to provide a utility bill to prove your identity. Imagine voting in a general election from the comfort of your home. Imagine not having to register at a new GP, dentist, or hospital ever again. These are the sorts of things a digital ID, or digital wallet promises millions of Britons. The idea has been around for decades, and was first floated in the UK by Sir Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister. His plans were ultimately scuppered when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition came to power in 2010, and no more was said about it.
In recent weeks, Sir Tony and his former political foe, Lord William Hague, put their heads together for a new report reimagining what digital wallets — and a number of other technological advancements — might do for a Britain that appears to be teetering on the edge of the global political and technological precipice.
Benedict Macon-Cooney, Chief Policy Strategist at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, was heavily involved in the report but didn’t anticipate the reaction to its publication coming. “ I probably wasn’t expecting quite as much,” he told Express.co.uk.
When the report went live, cries of Big Brother and an incoming surveillance state flooded social media and the papers. They are not unwarranted. But Mr Macon-Cooney believes they are far-fetched.
But where does the idea come from? To find that out, you need to look around 1,000 miles northeast, to a small Baltic nation called Estonia — the country Sir Tony and Lord Hague have based their report on.
Since 2002, Estonians have been allocated a digital number that they take with them to their graves. This 11-digit number enables around 99 percent of the country’s 1.3 million citizens to access over 600 government services.
While a tiny country, the digital scheme has transformed Estonia into a technological powerhouse, the ID card being the most highly-developed such system in the world.
A chip on each citizen’s card embeds multiple files, protecting the information within these files with a key encryption. It can be used as a definitive proof of ID for all manner of things, including digital signatures, I-Voting, to check medical records, submit tax claims, and even pick up and be allocated prescription medicines.
The country estimates that it has saved each individual around five days a year in form-filling, phone queuing, and council visiting.
Not only has it positively saved people time, but it’s also saved the Estonian government a pretty penny — around two percent of annual GDP.
In theory, this money can then be pumped back into the public sector, on things like healthcare, domestic infrastructure, public transport. The Estonian government might even invest it into a welfare system. The digital ID cuts bureaucracy, saves time and gives citizens more bang for their buck.
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It is an enticing prospect, especially given Britain’s current financial woes. “In the UK, we’re paying the highest tax burden since World War 2,” Mr Macon-Cooney said. “I don’t think we’re getting a corresponding service delivery that is commensurate with how much tax we’re paying.”
The estimated savings numbers when it comes to the UK are far more impressive than in Estonia: according to the report’s authors, it could free up £9.3billion through sharing medical records, easing the burden of increasing costs for the NHS, it could increase tax revenues by up to £35billion as fraudulent activity becomes easier to identify and stamp out, and it might also help ease Government service costs.
Everything points towards a digital wallet making life easier, better, and more sensical in the modern age. So why exactly has Sir Tony and Lord Hague’s report caused such a fuss?
Put simply, people are worried that a digital wallet is a step towards a surveillance state.
Britain hasn’t had identity cards since 1952 when Sir Winston Churchill scrapped them to “set the people free”. They were seen as having created tension between the police and citizens and were widely resented by the public. Of course, we’re talking about a different type of ID today, but the spirit of the concern remains largely the same.
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Silkie Carlo, the director of Big Brother Watch, a civil liberties and privacy NGO, described the premise of digital IDs as “Orwellian”, saying that they offer no more to citizens than creating a “high-tech surveillance state”.
Writing in a recent opinion piece for Express.co.uk, she said: “The digital identity-backed database state Sir Tony is describing would be one of the biggest assaults on privacy ever seen in the UK. It would increase state control over our lives with little benefit to the public – precisely the reasons cited when Blair’s failed ID card scheme was scrapped in 2010. But, in an increasingly technocratic world, ID cards are the policy that just won’t flush.”
It is true that a digital wallet poses a more intense threat to security. While Estonia’s scheme has mostly gone without a hitch in 20 years, in 2017, that all changed when a security flaw sent the country’s IDs into “lockdown”.
Thousands of citizens were blocked from accessing online government services in a nationwide frenzy that went on to affect almost a million people.
The hope is that the Government and private sector will come together to streamline the digital wallet. In Estonia, for example, people can use their digital IDs to log in to private websites and buy things.
Mr Macon-Cooney said the private sector “won’t be monetising” off any UK digital ID. Rather, it might gain from “efficiency” in making things like transactions and applications quicker — take opening a bank account or applying for a mortgage.
To what extent this might be true after any future rolling out is, however, difficult to predict. It has only in the last few years become common knowledge that social media companies sell user data to data collection companies for significant sums of money.
The proponents of a UK citizen digital ID say they are confident it wouldn’t create anything like a Big Brother state. There are only a few countries in the world that have such a system, but many, if not all of them bar Estonia, cannot be directly compared to the UK. China, for example, is another country which has digital IDs but is widely considered an authoritarian state.
“We are a democratic country,” said Mr Macon-Cooney. “And so I’d say that designed in the right way, the security, and where people should be pushing for and preserving privacy are things that the UK system, should always be advocating for anyway.”
For those like him, the fact that the UK is a democracy, and that there is such a public debate about the IDs already proves that any step in a dictatorial direction would immediately be stamped out.
But stranger things have happened. The UK constitution has in recent years been bent to almost breaking point. Rules, laws, and ministerial codes have been thrown out of the window. Perhaps such a decision would in the end go to a public vote.
“No policy is out of reach of the ballot box,” wrote Ms Carlo. “Our government changes when we, the public, vote to change it.”
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