Is Scotland really creating a national identity scheme, along the lines of Labour's scheme, abandoned in 2010? Does it really contain a card system, that could be used by Scottish citizens, and will a centralised database of all Scottish residents really enable massive data sharing of citizen's data across over 100 Scottish public authorities?
Given the SNP's opposition to Labour's identity scheme, the surprising answer to all these questions is yes. I fully expect that most Scottish ministers are not
aware of the implications of the identity system their civil servants have been building since 2005.
When the Scottish identity scheme started, it was Labour pushing the legislation. Their intention was to provide an "Entitlement Card" that could be used by all Scottish authorities to identify people when using services such as libraries, school meals or buses. Each citizen would be assigned a Unique Citizen Reference Number (UCRN) at birth, or else, when they received their Entitlement Card. The UCRN would map each person to every service they would use. All this is now in place.
Some state benefits, such as free bus journeys for pensioners, would be denied if they wished to refuse to carry an Entitlement Card. After, it's just an Entitlement Card, not an ID Card, so why should you worry?
The step change that has pushed this issue back into public attention is the proposal to take the NHS's registration records, which contain the name and address of a third of the Scottish population, and use it to map every Scot to their UCRN, and then over time, map these details to every Scottish authority they interact with. Around 100 authorities are on the initial list.
This change is billed as a minor amendment to NHS regulations under registration powers created by Labour in 2006. A consultation says that the data will be used to enable people to have a single log in to government online services; to find missing people and those from abroad who have failed to pay for NHS treatment; and to administer Scottish Income Tax.
However, the underlying change turns the NHS records into a de facto national identity register, parallel to Labour's UK Identity scheme. It would allow personal data to be linked, shared and data mined for a variety of policy purposes. Data sharing, and knowing how individuals are behaving across government departments, is a holy grail pursued by civil servants whatever the government of the day. It has been under discussion in Whitehall over the last year, which might give us a clue as to how the data might really be used if the Scottish Identity Register is put into place.
Whitehall, like the Scottish Government, say that fraud, error and debt, are a key area that could be addressed by data sharing. The kinds of detection that might take place could involve everyone's personal data being examined and correlated across services to identify a small number of possible incidents.
While this might sometimes seem reasonable, at other times the possibilities would place records of our everyday activities under the constant watch of a surveillance state. The bus pass function of Entitlement Cards, for instance, could be used to decide if people were not paying enough attention to their job seeking activities, or perhaps to suggest that they were living with someone whose benefits should therefore be stopped. Or maybe children could be tracked to ensure they really lived in the right school catchment area.
A second area that Whitehall suggests data sharing might help is research. Here, we should just note that research does not require constant, failsafe linking of people's identity to their every action. Data sharing for research can be done in a much more controlled, safer and privacy preserving manner.
The third area that Whitehall wants to use data sharing for is the least thought out and most controversial, but also probably the biggest driver for New Labour, when they started rolling out these plans both in the UK and Scotland. This is the idea of "tailored services", whereby the everyone's data is analysed to see if you, are in need of help.
Your criminal record, educational attainment and health data could be used to decide when the state should intervene in your life, and equally, when to withdraw benefits from people who are deemed less needy. The risks run from further narrowing means tested benefits to benefits based on data profiling, to stigmatisation of people whose data profile suggests that they are in some way under-performing as human beings.
These were the kinds of capabilities that UK ID Cards were billed as opening up, and civil servants enthused over. They led to the No2ID Campaign, and the opposition of the SNP. It's possible to argue that none of this would ever come to pass in Scotland, but the fact is that Scottish civil servants seem to been able to advance this policy without discussing the likely implications, or the motivations behind enabling massive data sharing.
The least we need is a full public discussion, and an urgent review of the emergent Scottish Identity system. Let's call it what it is, and ask if the Scottish people want to be watched ever more closely by the state.