Plans for any new pan-European ID system are doomed to fail due to massive cost & public concern over data privacy
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has resurrected the idea of an EU-wide ID system. What form it takes is unclear, but history suggests it will struggle to get off the ground.
Having finally returned with the EU circus to Strasbourg after weeks of umm-ing and aah-ing, Euro MPs are now safely back where they can pull apart the attacks and boasts of Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s first State of the EU address.
Alongside the bizarre claim that it was the EU which led the way in tackling the pandemic at the outset – er, no it wasn’t – were digs at the UK (naturally), Russia (of course) and China (who else?).
Finding her stride and knowing that wild ambitions were expected in this usually tedious session of ego-stroking, the former German defense minister announced new green targets, a universal migration governance scheme and plans to spend eight billion euros on developing a new generation of “supercomputers.”
Oh, and Madame President also spoke of plans for a new European e-identity, “one that we trust and that any citizen can use anywhere in Europe to do anything from paying your taxes to renting a bicycle.”
For the Commission boss to pretend this was some brilliant new idea is a bit rich. The suggestion of an EU identity scheme – previously expected to be a card of some sort – has been floating around for ages, and in terms of practicality is something many member states can understand as they use this form of ID every day.
And while the chips in cards – and passports – turn them into secure biometric identification documents these days, adding further information to any EU ID system that can allow debits from a bank account, access your taxation records or store your health data is a big, big step.
I sat at a European Parliament presentation from a Latvian tech outfit that had successfully rolled out a new generation of ID cards to the small nation a few years back. They planned to issue a card to every Latvian adult, about a million at the time, which would add increased functionality such as storing health records and bank details. This would allow people to go about their daily lives without a wallet or purse stuffed full of assorted but essential cards
All clever stuff, everyone agreed, except the passport-proud Brits present, who asked: “What about the privacy issues?” The businessmen, which is what they were, shrugged off any worries because the Latvian government “could be trusted to protect that data.” Hmmm. Really?
Other nationalities present were not so sure of their own situations. This was before most people had become aware of the marketability of personal data and how it was widely abused for commercial reasons. Google, Facebook, Twitter and others were still growing and Cambridge Analytica was just a twinkle in Steve Bannon’s eye.
But there were suspicions, especially with very personal health data, that somehow it would fall into the wrong hands and the holder of the clever ID card would come off second best. Discussions followed about insurance companies hoovering up data, legally or illegally, on individuals to create bespoke products that had premiums tailored to specific lifestyle choices way beyond the usual smoker/non-smoker, drinker/non-drinker options.
Such information could be extremely valuable in the commercial sector, and the only way to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands, as any teenage hacker will tell you, is not to put it out there in the first place.
But now, some years later, the new European Commission president has decided some form of ID system is on her to-do list, even though the majority of nations in the bloc that use identity cards already have a mutual agreement to accept them across borders as official identification. Surely that is enough?
Because the cost of a brand new EU-wide bells and whistles ID scheme will be out of this world and a complete waste of money, as the all-important security and privacy issues have zero chance of ever being addressed to the satisfaction of the 27 member states.
Some already use highly sophisticated ID cards domestically which are enough to cause a major inconvenience if lost – France for instance. Other countries might not be so happy to cede their data to an EU Big Brother, having had recent history with similar regimes of which they were only too glad to be rid and were among the reasons they joined the apparently easy-going EU in the first place.
This proposal is going to be an impossible sell to a skeptical European population already tired of Brussels’ oversight and interference in their lives.
Everyone loves the EU money and the freedom of movement, for sure, but that doesn’t mean they want some faceless data analyst digging around in the nooks and crannies of their private lives so their information can be used to target them for commercial or political gain.
Time to think again, Madame President, because this one ain’t gonna fly.