Biometric ID Database Dismantled In Face of Public Opposition


No2ID and affiliates; LSE Identity Project


United Kingdom

The Surveillance Practice: 

(Published December 2012) When the UK Home Office announced its plans to implement a national biometric identity card, alarm bells went off for privacy advocates  – and the battle lines were drawn for a persistent opposition campaign that finally claimed victory eight years later.

Under the ID scheme, every legal adult resident in the UK would be issued a unique number and a card linked to biometric information. The ID documents would be linked to a National Identity Register, consisting of a database where up to 50 categories of information for each individual would be stored in a centralized format. Since individuals would be required to register updates to their data, and logs would be created documenting every time the card was used, privacy advocates worried that the scheme would give rise to a kind of “lifelong surveillance” that would erode individuals’ privacy and diminish the sense of living in a free society.

As one of the most ambitious e-government projects ever pursued, the UK biometric ID initiative threatened to impose in a new surveillance infrastructure that would not be easily reversed once established.

The Campaign: 

Despite powerful momentum behind the ID scheme and the fact that 10,000 cards had already been issued, the endeavor was ultimately scrapped in the face of controversy. Shortly after a national election, the first act of the newly instated government was to reverse the legislation that created the ID cards, rendering all existing cards invalid. The government went on to fully dismantle the database, and physically grind the hardware of the centralized register to dust. A coalition agreement between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats signed in May of 2010, which did away with the scheme, noted that the program had caused a “substantial erosion of civil liberties.”

This success followed years of dedicated effort undertaken by many individuals, researchers and organizations. A non-partisan, single-issue advocacy organization called No2ID was formed in 2004. “It started with a meeting in a pub, like the better things in British politics,” jokes No2ID Campaigns Manager James Baker.

The Strategy: 

NO2ID coordinated a coalition and worked in tandem with groups such as Privacy International and others, with more than 60 different groups engaged at the height of the effort. “Our strategy was simple: To reach and engage those people who would rather go to prison than have an ID card," says Phil Booth, who ran the campaign for several years. “In reaching those people, we knew we'd get many more who were less committed, and educate millions. And if we got even just a handful of them, we'd be a force to reckon with.”

To this end, they helped facilitate the creation of small local groups that would work to oppose the ID scheme. “I knew we had to come at this from all angles. So we wrote a handbook for how to start and run a local group … and I just went out and met loads of people in pubs, with boxes of our trifold leaflet to leave with anyone willing to have a go,” Booth says. “Your job as a local group coordinator was ‘to make sure that the case against the ID scheme was disproportionately well-represented in your area.”

In addition to targeting mainstream media, they turned to smaller media outlets. Placing letters in local and regional outlets proved effective, because “people seemed more trusting of a friend or neighbor than government spin,” Baker said.

In May 2006, Home Office statistics suggested that 30,000 to 40,000 people took part in No2ID’s “Renew for Freedom” campaign – where individuals paid to renew their passports early and buy 10 years' reprieve from ID registration. Based on the combined reach of our 'coalition' partners at that point, we estimated that our call to action probably reached 7-9 million people - mainly in the form of an e-mail from an organisation of which they were already a member (not NO2ID). By this point, opinion polls showed public support had dropped from 80 percent in favor of the ID cards to 50 percent.

To frame the debate, they built the campaign around the concept of “the database state,” a phrase coined by campaigner Guy Herbert, which presented the problem beyond just the cards themselves. Surveillance on a mass scale “becomes a mechanism for control of society,” Baker notes. “Before long, you have a society where people lack any sense of personal freedom.”

The Research Project

Meanwhile, a team of researchers at the London School of Economics (LSE) took a hard look at the biometric ID scheme. The LSE Identity Project – a nonpartisan effort that was unaffiliated with any campaign – undertook an in-depth research and policy analysis effort coordinated and mentored by Simon Davies, Edgar A. Whitley and Gus Hosein, who is now executive director of Privacy International.

In 2005, the LSE Identity Project published a 300-page assessment of the proposals for Identity Cards. Their findings highlighted holes in government arguments justifying the proposal. For example, they pointed out that government claims about rising costs of identity theft were unfounded, and they pointed out that the “international obligations” security officials said they had to satisfy by issuing the cards were not binding on the UK.

Their findings clearly carried weight: In 56 days of Parliamentary debate on the ID system, the LSE research was mentioned more than 200 times.

Whitley noted in a presentation on the LSE research that the researchers were restricted from creating a media campaign on the issue. "Although we were involved as participatory observers," Whitley notes of the LSE research, "we did not determine the nature of the interventions and had even less control over their consequences. … The point of our action was simply to engage with the policymakers, experts and others to inform debate.” While LSE did not fill the role of a campaigner, its findings proved invaluable to opponents of the legislation and the decentralized network of activists who worked tirelessly to uphold the right to privacy.

Lessons Learned: 
  • In-depth research can shed light on a complex surveillance scheme.
  • Op-eds in local media outlets can help get the message across.
  • It is possible to halt a surveillance program after it’s been implemented.