We can’t avoid facing up to the issue of citizen identity – the visibility or invisibility of citizens to the state, the impact of the digital transformation on the collection, retention and integration of public data, and the safeguards that need to be built in to prevent its abuse. The private sector has already moved a long way down that path. A thriving sector of data scientists now works on aspects of personal verification: of age (for access to adult content online, for purchases of alcohol, for concessions for pensioners), financial status and probity, confirmation of qualifications and certification of address.
The government has been behind the curve on these developments since the Government Digital Service’s ‘Verify’ proposals ran into resistance six years ago – from Whitehall Departments unwilling and unauthorised to share data, and from Conservative ministers dithering between a private-public partnership and the hope of making a profit from access to public data. That’s leaving significant groups of citizens and residents increasingly excluded, as both government and private sector move online.
Those with money, jobs and qualifications can produce their driving licence, passport, utility bill or bank statement to confirm identity and status. Those without these things lose out. Several government departments had records that showed that elderly Britons born in the Caribbean had been living here for decades. But many of these elderly Britons couldn’t prove they’d been here that long, the Home Office couldn’t access other databases (and didn’t try), and the Windrush scandal blew up. Long-term EU residents now complain that they lack easy access to evidence to confirm their rights to employment and housing, and Liberal Democrats have been supporting their demands for physical cards (in addition to digital confirmation) to demonstrate their status.
At a briefing on Universal Basic Income before our party conference, an enthusiast for its introduction told us that the UK could rely on the electoral register as a base for eligibility. But one of the strongest arguments for UBI is that it would be automatic and universal. Yet we know that somewhere between 6 and 9 million adult Britons are missing from the register. The percentage of teenagers who are entered on the register as they reach 18 has fallen from 45% to 25% in the past ten years. Some of those missing are wealthy people who want to be invisible, for good reasons or bad; but most are precisely those at the margins of our economy and society who need UBI.
UBI won’t work without an accurate and complete data set on who is entitled to receive it. If we want to campaign for a new social contract between citizens and the state, the state will need to know who its citizens are and how and where to reach them.
Most party members have allowed digital networks to gather extensive details of their finances, social preferences, travel patterns and more. Experian is running TV adverts proudly telling us how much it knows about each of us. Most of us are unaware of how often banks and other companies check our credit rating, employment record or home address. Those intrusions on our privacy ease our daily lives. If we didn’t have such records, private actors and public agencies might treat us with greater suspicion – and those who lack them are treated with more suspicion, or left out.
The government is likely to publish its ‘digital strategy’ within the next few months. We should respond by attacking the Conservative preference for minimal regulation, and focus on the creation of effective safeguards, transparency, data access and ownership. We should welcome the principle of a digital form of citizen identity, remember that those without records and proof of identity are those in most need and campaign for a well-funded structure of scrutiny and regulation independent of government.
* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.