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"Sus papeles, por favor"

An old friend of mine spends his time travelling to destinations all over the world, a pastime that would probably be much more exciting than it is if he didn’t have to conduct endless focus groups when he got there. Irish by descent, though British by birth and these days the owner of a US green card, he has a distinctly southern Irish name—he may as well be called Seamus na gDiddleydee.

A couple of years ago his passport was cloned by a Nigerian man, who presumably has several million dollars he would like to deposit in your account. The first Seamus learnt of this was when he found himself being turned down for an Australian visa. Even after everyone involved had established that his passport had been cloned but he was the genuine article, they still wouldn’t let him in, presumably to uphold their international reputation as the cheeriest xenophobes on the planet.

Last month he and his pregnant wife J (she has appeared here before but anonymously; this time she at least gets her own initial) visited Spain. There was a minor kerfuffle at the airport when his passport showed up on their database of undesirables, but it was swiftly established that he was the real Seamus, and he and J were allowed on their way.

On the first morning they were woken early in their hotel room by armed police at the door. The agitated receptionist who was with them explained that they thought Seamus might be a wanted Nigerian fraudster. The local police station had been notified that the questionable passport had arrived at a local hotel, but had had no word from the airport that there was nothing to worry about. It quickly became clear that the cops were working the situation out for themselves; although Seamus doesn’t speak Spanish, he detected repeated use of the words “blanco” and “negro”. After a while they left, satisfied, with the armed Spanish equivalent of “Evenin’ all”, leaving a very shaken couple in their wake.

A couple of days later they moved on to a different town. On the first morning they were woken early in their hotel room by armed police at the door.

In all, this happened three times whenever they got to a new hotel, to the point where Seamus was irritably answering the door already waving his passport and J didn’t even get up. The police never notified any other police that he was an innocent man, and he would have continued to have guns waved in his face in any Spanish town he visited.

This is what happens in a country where the onus is on you constantly to prove to the state who you are. A country that is barely 30 years out of fascism is still used to officials being able to demand its papers as a matter of course. This is a degree of citizen surveillance and state power that we have never endured in this country, though, and—without wanting to labour a fucking point here or anything—it seems incomprehensible that there’s even a faint possibility that we might allow any of it to take hold now. Slot that level of everyday intrusiveness next to the institutional chaos that besets any bureaucracy—yes, Labour, even those with really big computers—and you have a truly dreadful combination.

Even if the intentions behind the national identity register were benign, think back to any bureaucratic nightmare you have had to endure: demands for money you didn’t owe, countless calls to a utility company where every time you had to start afresh because the last person you spoke to apparently hadn’t written anything down and they’d “never heard” of you. Even if it was finally resolved without threats or your turning up in person at the head office to shout, take a moment to imagine how much worse it would have been if it had involved not your mobile or even your water supply but your entire identity.

I’d like to think that, whatever unpleasantnesses arise as a result of the next election, this ridiculous and invasive national identity project will finally bite the dust. Let’s wait and see, though, if the Tories really can resist hanging on to that much power once they’ve settled in behind the wheel.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 26th, 2009 11:52 am (UTC)
Cameron is such an inevitability, now, isn't he?
May. 26th, 2009 12:01 pm (UTC)
May. 26th, 2009 12:26 pm (UTC)
If I may play Devil's Advocate for a moment here, wouldn't the proponents of a national ID scheme argue that this sort of thing is less likely to happen, as information will be held on one place, which the various agencies/police forces/whatever can quickly and easily check before taking an armed squadron to your hotel at dawn. If your passport has been cloned, a note can be added to your file by the first person who spots the mistake, and you won't have to explain the problem afresh to each agency that you deal with.

May. 26th, 2009 12:53 pm (UTC)
Of course they would argue this. Where the Tories’ characteristic argument for ID cards back in the day was order and discipline, the system’s Labour proponents soothingly emphasise “convenience” and “choice”, reaching for the hackneyed “protection against terrorists” line only when under fire. The reality is that the scheme would work just as well as any other massive database—that is, riddled with inefficiency and error. If you believe that the system would not lead to hilarious heavily armed misunderstandings like the one I have described here, either you truly are playing devil’s advocate or you believe that computers will fix everything because they are made of magic with a dash of wonder, in which case you are a politician over 40 and you’d be better off spending your time mollifying your constituents.

There’s also the principle that you shouldn’t have to go constantly proving your identity in your own country, but that’s not the way our leaders want us to go. Instead we’re heading towards a regime where our rights are subservient to our theirs “for our own protection”—and, in the formulation of the philosopher Tony Blair, if that is what we are going to do then it is modern, and if it is modern then it must be better. (And he was worried he wouldn’t leave a legacy!)

Basically, if we're going to take European integration seriously, we have to be prepared to bend over for the state like the Europeans already do.

May. 26th, 2009 01:04 pm (UTC)
I am not in favour of the national ID scheme, both on practical and principled grounds. As you rightly point out, large databses bring problems of their own. I don't think it's entirely right to dismiss their potential benefits out of hand entirely though. I think they can, possibly, play a part in making it easier for various departments and agencies to share information in a way that benefits us all. But I think there needs to be a compelling argument for why they are necessary. And they need to be proportionate. Some databases do deserve to be given a green light (http://www.jrrt.org.uk/uploads/Database%20State.pdf).

May. 26th, 2009 06:16 pm (UTC)
Here via matgb's links - good point, well made.
May. 26th, 2009 06:56 pm (UTC)
'Seamus' here
Thanks for the nom-de-plume!
Yes, good summary. I would only add that when I arrived in London to see you I checked into our hotel and they asked for my passport. I said 'no, I'm a british citizen and you don't need to see it'. It was very satisfying after having to present my papers as you described.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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