Thursday, January 28, 2010

ID cards by stealth

The Irish Times reports that substantial discussions have taken place between the Office of Data Protection Commissioner and the Department of Social and Family Affairs on the topic of a national identity card.

The report suggests that the card will include PPS number, photograph and signature. One imagines that in the end it'll have a lot of other things on it as well. The ID card may be required for access to public services. What else will it end up being required for? Will we be required to carry it at all times? Will it become a licence to exist?

There may be efficiency benefits in a centralized ID system, but this ad hoc, thin-end-of-the-wedge approach isn't good enough. The government should be making and defending its argument for ID cards publicly. ID cards have significant implications for civil liberties and privacy and any proposal to introduce them (even sneakily) should occasion a full public debate on their merits and demerits.

We're not very good at having public policy debates in this country. There is in Ireland a quiet consensus about healthcare policy, for example, that lacks any of the big-picture arguments seen in the UK over the value of the NHS and the role of private health insurance. We have instead co-location, sell-offs of public assets to private companies, and an apparent determination to force the middle classes (such as they are in the post-crash era) into the pockets of private health insurers so that the public system can be downsized.

In higher education we saw the government's failure to grasp the nettle of tuition fees. It will have to be grasped at some stage, and the reality is that students are already paying fees. The government wants Ireland to be a knowledge economy but they need to do their sums if there's to be any hope of that. What we haven't seen is any broad argument about what we're prepared to do as a nation, what outcomes we actually want, and what the reality of access to education is in this country and what the "social engineering" (and long-run economic) implications of that are.

The recent problems with flooding, snow, ice, water shortages and more flooding have all been regarded as crises. We lurch from crisis to crisis because we don't think big enough or long-term enough. It's a problem that Elaine Byrne has discussed. You can even see it in our urban planning, or lack of it. Decisions are made on a gombeen kickback basis or without properly public processes but often with a disregard for long range strategy. Even the government's big spatial planning ideas were a political horse-trading fudge.

Let's not even get into McCreevy's idiotic decentralization idea.

Our recent concerns about the security and integrity of a DNA database are applicable here, too, as are the comparisons with the UK, where a more public process and argument over ID cards has been ongoing for some time.

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