FECL 27 (September 1994):


The British government is planning the introduction in 1996 of new driving licences with electronically readable and storable photographs. The development of a licence on a micro-chip equipped smart-card at a later stage is being considered.
The plans have raised concern both of the Data Protection Registrar (British data protection authority) and among human rights organisa-tions. They believe that the government's plans aim at the piecemeal introduction of a compulsory identity card. For the time being, Britain is the only EU-member state where no form of national identity card exists.

In comments on the government's plan, Liberty, the British National Council of Civil Liberties, remarks that "any personal identification document that covers most of the adult population and that carries a great deal of information can become a de facto identity card, with disadvantage to those not possessing them."

The introduction of photographs will mean their recording by a computer in a digitised form, most probably for the Police National Computer, and will thus constitute a comprehensive database for identifying individuals. In the opinion of Liberty, such a development is not desirable in view of insufficient data protection under current British legislation and the lack of proper accountability of the country's police forces and security services.

Liberty opposes the introduction of national identity cards because

While emphasising that "the driving licence will not be officially regarded as a form of identity document", the British driver and vehicle licensing authorities at the same time note that "the inclusion of a photograph [in the licence] would be helpful for identity purposes".

Liberty fears that a driving licence with a great deal of personal data is likely to increase temptation for the police to demand production of the licence on a trivial pretext in the hope of locating a person wanted for reasons unconnected with a driving offence.

Random routine identification of drivers with the help of the new driving licence could lead to oppressive treatment of certain groups who are already liable to unwarranted harassment. Liberty points at the experience of Northern Ireland where the police and the army regularly demand the driving licence with its photograph as a proof of identity as required under the Emergency Provisions Act. In Northern Ireland, photographs were introduced on driving licences in the 1920s.


Deficient data protection legislation

The provisions of the British 1984 Data Protection Act allow great latitude to the police and the security services; the latter are in practice entirely free from regulation under the Act, while police have a wide-ranging exemption under the terms of their registration as data users. Thus, in the guidelines on data protection issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers it says: "Because of the nature of the purpose, other sources or disclosures, including any on the [Data Protection] Registrar's list, may be used or made in connection with particular enquiries".

Moreover, in case of driver records, the limitation to "particular enquiries" is apparently to disappear, since the government wants the details of all drivers kept in the registers of the Driver and Vehicle Licensing authorities to be provided to the National Police Computer. This implies that the police will have instant access - for example, via computer terminals in police patrol cars - to records of the personal details of most of the adult population.

It is not only the police who, in the present state of data protection in the UK, will potentially have access to the records in question. Despite attempts by, among others, the Data Protection Registrar, to obtain information and assurances, the government refuses to disclose the full extent of personal data exchanges between government departments and agencies, and has failed to publish comprehensive guidelines to define the limits to such exchanges. Access to a comprehensive file or name-linked photographs would perhaps be welcomed by a number of agencies such as those dealing with immigration, customs, taxation and benefit payments.

Supporters of the introduction of a compulsory ID-card like to point out that the average citizen already uses a wide range of identification documents for special purposes, such as bank and credit cards, travel passes and so on. Yet, these existing systems differ from a compulsory national system. The common feature of these identity documents is that those who carry them have chosen to do so in order to obtain a particular benefit or service. Moreover, in Britain the police and government officials have no power (except in Northern Ireland) to stop people and ask their identity. A driving licence, for example, should only be demanded, if a person is driving on a road or is believed to have committed a driving offence.

In contrast, to serve the ends suggested for it a compulsory identity card would have to be linked with a police power to demand it at any time and to detain those not carrying it.


Risk of abuse and discrimination

Experience of other European countries points at another danger. Minorities and dissident groups are frequently liable to be more harassed by the police when a compulsory card system is in force.

This was recently shown when the French government introduced new legislation providing for more extensive random checking as a means to fight against illegal immigration (see FECL No.17, p.6; No.8, p.6).

In Germany the police use card-checks to identify anti-government demonstrators not suspected of any offence whose personal data are then stored in police computers for "internal security" monitoring.

Switzerland recently introduced a new machine-readable ID-card that allows for the immediate access to all connected police information systems containing data on Swiss citizens.

Among other things, the Swiss criminal search system RIPOL contains information on HIV-infected persons (see CL No.23, p.7).

Similar projects aiming at the piecemeal introduction of computer-processable ID-cards are under way in most EU-member states and are likely to end up in the creation of an EU-identity card containing all personal data of citizens (including health and income) on microchips.

Continental Europeans would therefore be well advised not to brush aside Liberty's warnings as a mere expression of British particularism.

As Liberty puts it: "British citizens have long enjoyed the freedom to walk down the street, or sit in their own home, without an official being able to tap them on the shoulder or knock on the door and ask them for proof of identity. People may not be conscious of possessing this freedom but they would certainly be conscious of having lost it".


Sources: Press release 9.8.94, Liberty; Photographs on Driving licences - Report by the National Council for Civil Liberties (Liberty), London, June 1991, 5.p.; Liberty-Briefing No. 12, September 1989; Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 18.8.94.


Contact: Liberty (NCCL), 21 Tabard Street, London SE1 4LA; Tel: +44/71 403 3888, Fax: +44/71 407 5354