Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Identification cards

The BBC has a very interesting interview with Jean-Louis Bruguiere (additional profile here), a top French anti-terrorism investigative magistrate. Perhaps surprisingly, France has some of the strictest anti-terrorism laws and policies in the Western world (see this fascinating Washington Post article for more details). Therefore it is interesting that Bruguiere says
that courts should be allowed to consider evidence gathered by wire-tapping - as in France, but unlike the UK, where it is inadmissible
and that
compulsory ID cards had proved "very important" in his country's effort to thwart attacks.
Both the UK and the US are taking into consideration measures that would create compulsory identity cards. In an Anglo-Saxon setting this is highly controversial because of the power it gives the government to pry into one's movements and activities, and I respect that concern. However, as I come from a country (Italy) where having ID on you at all times is compulsory, it doesn't seem as scary to me, because I have never witnessed (nor am I aware of incidents of) official abuse in this respect. It is true that there are also concerns about criminals or terrorists hacking into the networks that store the data, but I have no doubt that if implemented sensibly these risks can be minimised. Additionally ID cards have existed in many European countries for years and I am not aware of criminals easily forging them, as some critics say they will.
See here for an overview of the issues and also see this well-argued criticism of the US plan which apppeared in the Wall Street Journal. A description of the UK plan appears here.
Notwithstanding the legitimate concerns, it seems to me that, now that we have passed from the Cold War to the War on Terror, Western democracies need to have effective tools to counter the dispersed, but heightened threat that terrorists pose. No doubt, there need to be safeguards and clear limitations to ensure that people's civil rights are respected at all times. At the same time ID cards are not in themselves an effective solution, if they are not used in the context of a sensible intelligence program: otherwise these dire predictions will come true. Nonetheless it seems to me that there is no realistic alternative to (well regulated) ID cards if we want to ensure that the State can count on the most effective tools to combat terrorism.

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