John Humphrys - Who wants Big Brother in their Smartphone?

February 24, 2023, 2:55 PM GMT+0

Remember the excitement when you got your first mobile phone – possibly back in the last century if you’re of a certain age? It might have been the size of a brick but, oh, the thrill and one-upmanship of being able to call a friend from the pub or even your car and the slightly breathless ‘You’ll never guess where I am!’ greeting. And then, not many years later, your first iPhone and the dawning realisation that it was like having your entire office on this tiny gadget in your pocket. Plus a TV, library, photo gallery, credit card, well… pretty well everything. Above all, of course, access to another world. The world of what we very quickly came to know as social media.

We may love our smart phones or loathe them but what we have to accept is that we would find it difficult if not impossible to lead our lives in the modern world without them. It’s true that many of us worry that this new digital age exacts a price for the benefits it offers. The price of privacy. I doubt there is a single soul reading these words who has not winced a little when an email has popped into their inbox or a message flashed up on their phone revealing that someone out there has been monitoring their conversations or internet searches and is using that information to try to sell them something. But at least we know that if we really value our privacy we can switch the damn thing off.

But for how much longer?

Two of the most illustrious political figures in the land – Tony Blair and William Hague - have put their political differences aside and come together to produce a report that has sent shivers down the spines of those who fear that the hand of Big Brother is finally reaching out to seize what they regard as the most precious of our liberties. The freedom to go where we wish and do what we wish without having to prove that we are entitled to be there.. So long, of course, as we are observing the law.

Much of what Sir Tony and Lord Hague are proposing is relatively uncontroversial and indeed, many would argue, is an important contribution to the debate about our nation’s future in this new digital age. An age, they say, in which the world is set for ‘the fastest and most comprehensive period of innovation in the history of human civilisation, embracing artificial intelligence; the use of data and the cloud; biotech and its ability to transform medical science… a 21st-century technology revolution as huge in its implications as the 19th-century Industrial Revolution. ’

That is why, their report says, ‘vital steps’ need to be taken to secure the future of our country. And, because the world is changing radically, politics in this country must change radically too: ‘ We both believe the challenge is so urgent, the danger of falling behind so great and the opportunities so exciting that a new sense of national purpose across political dividing lines is needed…. a fundamental reshaping of the state around technology. This is not about traditional left and right debates. It should lead to a more strategic state with an entirely new operating model.’

This new state would mean ‘reorganising the centre of Whitehall to drive the use of data and AI across government, a national health infrastructure that uses data to improve care and keep costs down, and sovereign AI systems backed by supercomputing capabilities….Government should treat data as a competitive asset, use procurement to promote innovation in Britain, release risk capital by reforming pension fund rules and give more freedom to research institutions. It should continue to raise R&D funding, create new models of funding research, reform infrastructure planning to deliver fast decisions, personalise education with technology and build stronger partnerships on science with the EU and around the globe. Such a programme is the real growth agenda.’

Powerful language and relatively uncontroversial. Most people who have had to do business over the internet with government departments such as the Inland Revenue would probably agree that it can be a pretty painful experience. But the recommendation from the report that has attracted most concern is contained in just a few words: ‘digital ID for every citizen’.

The Daily Mail columnist, Stephen Glover, described it as ‘so illiberal that one wouldn't be surprised if it were the official policy of the Chinese Communist party.’ It envisages, he wrote, a digital ID which everyone would have to have on their smartphone. This would incorporate people’s passports, driving licences, tax records, qualifications, right to work, and ‘God knows what else almost everything known about you in one place.’

Glover had two objections. One was based on the assumption that everyone has, or should have, a smartphone in the first place. Some people, he said, ‘find them bewildering and hard to cope with. Others don't want to be dominated by a device that somehow sucks the life out of you.’ But that, he said, was a relatively trivial objection when set alongside the ‘sinister Big Brotherish implications’ of the recommendation. Not many of us, he said, ‘want to live in a country whose government defines us in a single app, allowing officials to gain access to our personal details with one poke of the finger.’

He accepted that there may be a reasonable case for a separate identity card of the sort people carried during the war and for some years afterwards. One argument is that ‘they make it harder for illegal immigrants to find a job, and so act as a deterrent to illegal immigration’, but this new proposal is ‘more menacing because the prying state could be inside your smartphone within seconds and find out far more about you than would be disclosed by an old fashioned identity card.’ And then there’s the risk of hackers taking advantage of the ‘treasure House of personal information conveniently concentrated in one place on the instructions of HMG.’

Glover notes that the state's record in setting up computerised systems has been pretty woeful, so ‘one could have little confidence in the security of a digital ID … nor would I be surprised if government decided to flog off some of the information it had gathered about us.’ He concluded: ‘This is a thoroughly bad idea, illiberal and prone to abuse. The state would enjoy unprecedented surveillance over our lives’.

But what about the argument that high-tech ID would make our lives easier? Specifically when it comes to voting fraud. Janice Turner in The Times, who’s now in her fifties, reflected on the days before smartphones had even been dreamed of. She recalled that from the age of 14 ‘we got into nightclubs and X-rated films, were never refused entry to anything for being underage. Now even I get ID’d buying wine in Sainsbury’s. Or rather, the self-checkout lights up until, dispiritingly, an assistant approves my Merlot without a glance. Meanwhile, the youth beside me has whipped out his driving licence or Pass card, an age-verification ID you obtain from the Post Office at 18.’

Critics, she says, note that the list of accepted documents contains mainly ‘old-people stuff’. A polling station will allow the over-60s’ Freedom Pass or disabled person’s blue badge as proof of their eligibility to vote, but not university IDs and library cards. That, she says, is ‘an ageist outrage until you realise that pubs and clubs don’t accept these either, just a passport, Pass card or driving licence’. And that’s what young people carry.

‘If there were an election tomorrow,’ she says, ‘the young would be tooled up to vote. It’s older people — statistically Tory-inclined — who would be scrabbling through drawers. But even they now need an ID to collect a parcel. And isn’t choosing a government more significant than that?’ The whole system, she says, is a mess and the solution is to join the disparate online dots — NHS records, tax codes, age verification — into one high-tech ID. Only dinosaurs would object.

So where do you stand? Do you want to join the ‘disparate’ dots and accept digital ID is both inevitable and welcome or do you fear Big Brother in your smartphone?

Let us know.

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