IT Essay: National ID cards Ethical issues

National ID cards have long been advocated as a means to enhance national security, unmask potential terrorists, and guard against illegal immigrants. They are in use in many countries around the world including most European countries, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.

Currently, the United States and the United Kingdom have continued to debate the merits of adopting national ID cards. The types of card, their functions, and privacy safeguards vary widely. In UK, The Government’s decision to introduce a national Identity Cards Scheme was announced in the Queen’s Speech on 17 May 2005 and the Identity Cards Bill was reintroduced to Parliament. The date for introduction depends on the timing of the Bill being passed as law.  It is  expected to issue the first ID cards from 2008. But there has been a huge outcry over the issue and public continue to debate over it.

According to the government press releases, ID cards will provide legal UK residents, including foreign nationals, with an easy and secure way of proving who they are. ID cards will be linked to their owners by unique biometric identifiers (for example, fingerprints) which mean one will have a much stronger way of protecting people’s identities. Background checks will ensure that claimed identities are real and not stolen, and will prevent criminals using multiple identities.
The card will have the details like Name, address, gender, date /place of birth, immigration status, finger prints and iris scan. However it will not have sensitive information such as ethnic origin, medical records, tax records etc

In UK, anyone who is in the country for more than 3 months and is over 16 years old is eligible for an National ID card. Public and private sector organisations will be able to check the information held on the National Identity Register to help them establish the identity of their customers and staff.  For example, you may be asked to prove your identity when opening a bank account or registering with a doctor.

Major points advocating the need for an ID card is:

1. Prevention of Identity theft: An ID card will prevent the identity theft of an individual by providing him a secure and straightforward manner of proving and protecting their identity..
2. Prevention of illegal immigration and travel: ID cards will stenghten immigration control.Government and people will know who is a legal citizen of the country and who go the rights to work here, thereby preventing illegal work which infact affects the economy.
3. Public services: ID cards will help ensure public services are used by those entitled to use them .Thus it will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of service delivery.

4. Terrorism and organised crime: Just as people will gain an individual benefit from registering with the ID cards scheme, as more people r enrolled society as a whole benefits.It will be better protected from activities of those who use false identities, from people who hide their criminal past to avoid restrictions on working with children through to organised crime and those who support terrorist activites.

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ID cards- Ethical issues:

We will discuss the national ID cards issue with respect to various computer ethical theories:

1. Ethical relativism: According to this theory, Morality is relative to the norms and traditions of a society.It states that whether an action is right or wrong depends on the society in which it is practiced.Actions which are right in one society can be considered wrong in another one.Now comparing this to the issue of national ID cards, which are considered as a tag to a citizen given by the government.Although National ID cards have been implemented in various europeon countries , malaysia, singapore etc but for countries like UK or USA, its not a very good idea to implement this.Reason being these countries are quite liberal in terms of foreigners settling in to take up jobs and a higher standard of living.So the culture is mixed.There are various colors and races of people.Issue of national ID cards can foster a new form of racism and descrimination. E.g. in UK, Asian or African communities can become subject to constant identity checks to confirm their status in the country. Failure to carry a national I.D. card would likely come to be viewed as a reason for search, detention or arrest of minorities. The stigma and humiliation of constantly having to prove that they are citizens or legal immigrants would weigh heavily on such groups.
Now compared to countries having a single colour people and not many foreign visitors, they might not have the same problem as ID cards can cause in USA or UK. So relativism theory holds true for national ID cards.
It also depends on the situation of the society. National ID cards were issued in UK back in Second World War. But it was done to preserve national security from intruders and spies from other countries. It was abolished later on. So considering the situation; it was not a bad move that time. Now compare this to the present situation of UK the recent terrorist attacks, and post Sep 11 attacks on USA.National ID cards will provide a means of identifying any suspected person or someone who is having a past criminal record. This can make the present society more safe compared to what it is today. But again the implications are far too many. With various immigrants from so many countries, it would just cause an embarrassment for them who are also an integral part of today’s society in these countries, as they would be viewed as potential suspects. ID cards would also act as an internal passport in the country. This is no doubt useful in the case of criminals or terrorists, but a common citizen has to show his credibility every time, thus giving a feeling of being monitored all the time.

2. Ethical utilitarianism: This theory classifies an act as right or wrong depending on the happiness of the society or person concerned .If the act is right, it would bring happiness .But if its not the case, then it is considered wrong. Utilitarians also assume that it is possible to compare the intrinsic values produced by two alternative actions and to estimate which would have better consequences. If the difference in the results is not of alternative acts is not great, some Utilitarians do not regard the choice between them as a moral issue. Coming to the issue of national ID cards, there are various direct and indirect consequences on the society. Some of them are good and beneficial and some are not. According to utilitarians, it is possible to do a bad thing from a right motive. Basically it provides an answer to what should a man do, to provide best possible results. Step taken in terms of issuing an ID card has a right motive. It would help in prevention of identity theft of an individual by someone else, prevention of illegal immigrants and travel into the country, as ID cards can provide a positive means of identification on the immigration status of a person. It would also help in prevention of misuse of public services and most importantly prevent the terrorists and persons having criminal record from taking fake identities to mix up in the society and try to cause some harm to it. Now all these are the positive points coming from ID cards.
But there are few negative points too. Utilitarian theory tries to compare the bad consequences with the good ones and find out if the act is right or wrong. Now the foremost negative point about issuing an ID card is invasion of privacy of a person. All information about a person would be stored in a centralised database which can be accessed by any authorised person with the click on a button. But that doesn’t guarantee prevention of possible misuse by some corrupt individuals to find out the details of someone and possibly change it. And information once changed if not tracked in time, can cause a great loss to that person who wouldn’t know what went wrong. He might get denied a job in a public sector requiring security clearance. People can make fake ID cards and steal identity of others, as it would be the most reliable method to prove one’s identity. ID cards would also restrict one’s free movement across the country and can cause racial discrimination. Now comparing the negative and positive points of this step, it is very difficult to decide which step is right for the society. But taking the safety of today’s society, the decision tilts slightly in the favour of ID cards. But it’s a long debate and the exact consequences would only be known when the cards are actually implemented.

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3. Deontological Theory: This theory focus on use of certain rules rather than consequences to justify an action or policy. The best-known deontological theory is that of Immanuel Kant in the 18th century. His theory stated that

Moral rules should be universalisable i.e. applied to all rational, moral members of the community rather than to just some. All persons should be treated never simply as means but also always as ends in themselves. Members of the moral community should take a hand in making the laws as well as living by them.

This theory states that one has to follow some morals no matter what the consequences are. Matter of ID cards clearly violates some freedom of movement and privacy of an individual. So technically speaking; it is not a moral thing to do.  Even though the consequences can be good for the society, but according to this theory, it should not be done, as it is not morally correct. One of the theory by shelly kaggan states that individuals are bound by constraints which he should respect but also given some options which he can choose to follow or not. Issue of ID cards can be considered as an option but it is not totally correct morally as it affects some rights of human beings. Consequences are not considered in this theory. Apart from all these ethical issues affecting an individual’s rights of data protection, freedom of movement, privacy etc, there are many more hurdles which comes into picture before implementing ID cards

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Conclusion:

It is not known how ID cards will be foolproof given the above failure modes. Misuse can be far more dangerous than anticipated. And they are prone to errors and misuse, and are likely to be blindly trusted even when wrong. And cost of issuing the ID cards to every person in the country would run into billions which will most likely be paid by the tax payers of this country. As expensive as the financial costs are, the social costs are worse. However saying that, ID cards are not totally ineffective but a proper and more reliable systems needs to be put into place before deciding on the privacy and rights of the citizens. Data Protection law is wholly inadequate to deal with the use of ID cards. Indeed legislation in most countries facilitates the use of ID cards, while doing little or nothing to limit the spectrum of its uses or the accumulation of data on the card or its related systems. However with its help in preventing terrorist activities, it can be implemented with a slight improvement on human rights issue. Morality of ID cards is still being debated all over the world, which is the main reason for the implementation getting delayed.

Bibliography:

1.  Ermann M and M.B. Williams. Computers, ethics and society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997, pp 12 – 50

World Wide Web:

2.  Home office.http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/passports-and-immigration/id-cards/how-the-data-will-be-used/?version=1.Oct 09, 2005

3.  Identity cards. http://www.identitycards.gov.uk. .Oct 09, 2005

4.  Bruce Schneier. Schneier on Security.  http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2005/05/real_id.html.Oct 10, 2005

5.  National ID debate.  http://www.vastlyimportant.com/vastly/2004/08/national_id_deb.html#comments.Oct10,2005
6.  Epic-National id and real ID act. http://www.epic.org/privacy/id_cards/. Oct10, 2005
7. Utilitarianism. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Utilitarianism.  Oct 12, 2005

8.  Ethical Relativism. http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/decision/ethicalrelativism.html. Oct 12,2005


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