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UK’s new govt expresses openness to digital ID, not cards

UK’s new govt expresses openness to digital ID, not cards
 

Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair is touting digital identity as a solution to controlling irregular migration, one of the key issues during the UK parliamentary elections which concluded on July 4th.

In an opinion piece addressed to the newly-elected Prime Minister Keir Starmer, Blair says that the UK government should harness the power of artificial intelligence and create a plan to control immigration.

“In office, I believed the best solution was a system of identity, so that we know precisely who has a right to be here,” he writes for The Times.”With, again, technology, we should move as the world is moving to digital ID. If not, new border controls will have to be highly effective.”

Introducing national identification documents, however, remains a controversial idea in the UK with Labor lawmakers flip-flopping on the issue.

Asked whether he would support Blair’s calls for introducing ID cards as a solution to unchecked immigration, Business Secretary Jonathan Reynolds told Sky News on Sunday that Home Secretary Yvette Cooper would look at “all sources of advice.” The catch is that Blair did not call for ID cards, but rather digital identity. Thus, less than two hours later, Reynolds did an apparent U-turn on the issue.

“We can rule that out, that’s not something that’s part of our plans,” he told Times Radio.

According to Home Secretary Cooper, ID cards were not in the party’s election manifesto and not their approach. Instead, the government is planning to set up a new enforcement and return unit aiming to tackle illegal migration and people smuggling gangs.

“There is a misconception that in order for people to prove who they are digitally and with trust, there must be a central national ID database or that we must all have a government issued national ID card,” explains Open Identity Exchange Chief Identity Strategist Nick Mothershaw. “This is not the case at all. A well-designed digital ID can be issued by a certified private sector provider and stored in a person’s own ‘digital wallet’ for them to control who it is shared with, without the ability for any one organisation or government to follow their movements. The UK’s Digital Identity and Attributes Trust Framework is key to helping us get to this position.

“It’s vital that misconceptions about digital ID being national ID cards do not stall its progress in the UK, as digital ID has the potential to drive huge economic growth through the UK’s digital economy, beyond its immediate benefits,” the OIX chief continues. “We urge the new government quickly enact into law the proposed Digital Verification Service (DVS) legislation that supports the use of trusted digital ID so that the UK can move forward with its digital ID strategy.”

A new spin on an old debate

The Labor Party has been divided on ID documents since the early 2000s when Tony Blair’s government proposed compulsory IDs as a solution for multiple problems: Illegal migration, benefit fraud, identity theft and terrorism. The plan was met with resistance from civil rights groups such as Liberty which argued that ID cards are a pathway to less privacy and greater surveillance. The project was ultimately abandoned in 2010 under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government.

UK politicians, however, have not abandoned hope. The issue of national ID cards became a hot topic again when the country introduced mandatory photo identification for voting. The “small boat” crisis has also highlighted the need for ID documents: Over 13,000 migrants had crossed the English Channel in small boats as of June 2024.

In April, Lord David Blunkett, former home secretary under Blair, called for reintroducing national ID cards, arguing that it could be the country’s solution for unchecked immigration and human trafficking.

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change has been calling for a comprehensive government digital ID program that is secure, private and decentralized. In a report published in June 2023, the institute argued that the digital ID could transform services like education, health, immigration and welfare. One of the propositions laid out is streamlining the immigration and asylum processes which costs UK taxpayers £3 billion (US$3.8 billion) annually.

This post was updated at 3:18pm Eastern on July 8, 2024 to include comments from OIX.

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