IT: e-government
IT: e-government

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IT: e-government

4.9 Ethical, social and political aspects

The introduction of identity cards has proved controversial in several countries, for example France (where identity papers have long been a requirement) and Australia. Generally the issues have related to the questions like: 'What are these cards actually for?', 'Whose interests do they serve?' and 'What use will be made of the underlying database of identity data?' Opponents of identity schemes have pointed out that totalitarian regimes have always found identity systems very useful – Nazi Germany and South Africa under apartheid being frequently cited. Even if a present-day government is trustworthy, what assurance is there that a future government will not abuse an identification system? Debates in this field are thus as much ethical, political and social issues as they are technical.

Ethical, political and social issues

Ethical, political and social issues differ in many ways from purely scientific or technical ones. With purely scientific and technical disagreements, there is usually a route to a solution that is agreed on by the disagreeing parties. Thus, although all parties may be convinced of their rightness, they can usually agree on what would be required to settle the dispute. For instance, they might agree that performing a particular experiment or building a prototype device would settle the argument. Behind this 'agreed route' idea is the notion that accumulating more facts, or evidence or data will settle the dispute. (In the event, this new data might not settle the disagreement, but the parties will nevertheless agree that this is the way disagreements are settled.)

Ethical, political and social disputes, in contrast, have a different character. With them there is usually no agreed route to a resolution. Although the parties in the dispute may cite data and facts to support their positions, there is not likely to be any crucial evidence that will settle the dispute. In fact, the basis of the dispute often relates to the significance of factual evidence, for instance, whether a particular fact is more or less significant than another. In other words, the debate is about the value that should be attached to factual data.

In technology, issues often arise that inextricably mix science, ethics, politics and social questions. Biometric identification is a good example, but there are many more. As you have seen, there are concerns about gathering personal information about citizens and about the uses such information might be put to. These are ethical issues. Underlying them are questions of rightness or wrongness in a moral sense, rather than in a scientific or technical sense.

You have also seen that there are concerns about whether the state should be able to do certain things, such as compelling citizens to participate in an identification scheme. Questions such as these, which relate to the holding and exercising of power, are examples of political issues.

Finally, as you have seen, there are concerns about the type of society that might result from national (and international) identity schemes. Will some sections of society be disadvantaged relative to others, and will individual liberty be infringed unacceptably? These are examples of social questions, as they relate to thel organisation and running of society.

Distinguishing between the technical aspects and the ethical, political and social aspects of an issue is often not easy. To help to clarify the distinction, it can be useful to think how a dispute could be resolved. If there is a route based on factual data, then it is probably a technical matter. If there is no clear route involving factual data, then there are probably ethical, political and social aspects. For instance, deciding how many fingers need to be used to achieve a particular performance level in a fingerprint identification system looks like a technical matter; but deciding whether national fingerprint data should be made available to the police does not. Even purely technical matters, though, often need to be seen within a larger ethical, political or social context. For instance, a technical question about identification might have very different implications within a totalitarian regime compared with a tolerant regime.

In this section I am going to look briefly at some of the issues in a UK context, although they are not confined to the UK. I am drawing heavily on an article by Dempsey (2005) for this section although I am not quoting him.

Dempsey (2005) points out that in the UK, government arguments for an identification scheme have shifted. At one time identity cards were promoted as part of the campaign against terrorism. This argument has tended to be played down in favour of arguments about reducing benefits fraud. It is claimed that the careful checking of identity that precedes the issuing of a card will make it harder for fraudsters to make multiple claims with different identities. Commentators have questioned both of these arguments. Unless suspected terrorists are on a watch list, it is hard to see how identity cards can thwart them. Furthermore, many authorities have pointed out that benefit fraud usually results from dishonest declaration of income by the fraudster. The fraudster's identity is usually not false, so the usefulness of an identity card looks questionable in this case too. Other critics have pointed out that forged identity cards will almost certainly be available to anyone with the time and money to acquire them, so an identity card system could lead to a false sense of security.

There is certainly a case to be made for the practical usefulness of identity cards. For many low-level verification tasks, UK citizens currently have to use passports and driving licences in the absence of anything more suitable. This suggests a need for some sort of identity document. Many critics worry, however, that cards will come to be required for all sorts of activities that have not needed them traditionally, such as booking a hotel or buying travel tickets. This might seem no more than a nuisance, but many people who are not criminals nevertheless have good reasons to want their true identity kept secret (for instance, if they have fled from abusive domestic circumstances). Life for them would be more difficult. Criminals, on the other hand, who will always be able to get forged cards, will hardly be inconvenienced.

Although the controversy over identification schemes is usually expressed in terms of identity cards, what is at issue is often not so much the cards themselves as the national database, or national identity register, that would underpin the scheme. For many objectors, the creation of a large database containing everyone's photographs, fingerprints and other personal data looks like an erosion of traditional liberties. Hitherto, the only people who have had their fingerprints routinely collected have been criminals. Does collecting biometric data from everyone turn them, potentially, into suspects?

The creation of a national identity register could be argued to be consistent with 'modernisation of government' – the justification for so much of the e-government project. Almost any large business nowadays gathers information on its customers and stores it in a database. Compiling information on customers is part of the modern way of doing business. Why should it be different for a government? Managing a country could certainly be much simpler and more efficient if accurate, up-to-date information on the population was available all the time from a national database, rather than only intermittently via periodic censuses.

The convenience and usefulness provided by a national database, however, would not be confined to government. Many private organisations would find access to that kind of information attractive, and might be willing to pay for it. Critics of the identity card scheme suspect that information from the national identification register would find its way into private hands.

Other anxieties centre on the blurred distinction between identification and surveillance. It would, for instance, be possible for a facial-recognition system to be used in conjunction with surveillance cameras, so that a particular individual's movements could be automatically tracked in an area surveyed by cameras. Dempsey (2005) records that traffic cameras from the UK were used for surveillance of student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, in 1989.

Looking to the future, it looks likely that identification systems in different countries will require some degree of standardisation. Within Europe, for instance, some countries' identity cards contain only a photograph of the owner and name and address. In some cases the cards are not backed up by a national database of biometric data.

My final point relates to cost. A national-scale identification system will be expensive. A UK identity card scheme, for instance, would be one of the largest IT projects ever undertaken. If the justification for the system is, say, crime reduction, could a better result be obtained by spending the money in other ways? Many critics of an identity system argue that it could, although the UK scheme is intended to be largely self-financed from the cost of enrolment.

This section has given only a brief coverage of some of the ethical, political and social issues involved with an identity system. However, there is plenty of further material on the Web.

Activity 24 (self-assessment)

Which of the following questions clearly raise ethical, political or social issues, and why?

  1. Which biometric system has the best false match rate?

  2. What information should be held on an identity card?

  3. How much should citizens be charged for their identity cards in order to cover the cost of setting it up?

  4. Which type of data chip on an identity document is most easily read remotely?

  5. During enrolment, how should cases of false positive identification best be handled?

  6. On what occasions should citizens be required to identify themselves, and who should have the right to demand identification?


  1. This can be resolved experimentally, so looks like a technical matter.

  2. It is hard to answer this without asking further questions about what the information will be used for and why. These look like ethical, social and political questions.

  3. This looks like a technical matter. However, if differential pricing is used, deciding how much different categories of people should be charged takes on ethical, political and social aspects.

  4. This looks as though it could be settled by experiment, so it looks like a technical matter.

  5. This does not look as though it could be resolved with a purely factual input, so it has ethical, political and social aspects.

  6. Again, these do not look as though they could be resolved with a purely factual input, so ethical, political and social issues are raised.

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