Proof of identity does not look good on paper

In a welcome early delivery against election campaign promises, identity cards are to be scrapped today, along with the new generation of biometric passports. ID cards collapsed under the dual burden of failing to provide any additional policing or national security benefits and being a costly vanity project in an era of austerity.

This profoundly un-British concept has experienced an odd migration across the political landscape, having first been proposed by then Home Office Minister Michael Howard under a Conservative government in 1985. Resurfacing as a New Labour project, the idea proved to be a true orphan with no political parent to protect it.

For the world of data and marketing, the introduction or not of these cards would have made little difference. But it does highlight an ongoing gap in the area of identity verification when an individual wants to access a service or needs to prove who they are.

Birth certificates continue to be the standard document required as evidence of who you are, from getting a passport or driving licence through to opening a bank account or starting a life insurance policy. Once you have gained one of those other identity documents, they become proofs in their own right. Yet their authenticity is still underwritten by the provision of that original document.

Proof of address is also still demonstrated chiefly by providing several utility bills. Ownership of an electricity or telephone account is considered to be evidence enough of living at an address, since why would anybody pay for those services who did not use them?

The strength of those proofs of address is debatable, however. And there are also gaps in who can provide them. If a man moves out of the marital (or shared) home having paid all the bills, the woman may find it hard to prove her residency, since her name will not appear on any utility database, for example.

In an era where most services are now delivered online and the principle point of contact is via a website, the use of paper documents seems old-fashioned. ID cards were never going to answer that problem, since no commercial access to the data was envisaged.

As the Government looks to extend the provision of e-services – not least to leverage cost savings – it would do well to think about how commercial identity management might play a part. That could be good news indeed for the data industry at a time when everything else is being cut back.

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