The 2020 Covid 19 pandemic and subsequent measures to deal with it in the UK have led to a reprisal of previously touted and abandoned national ID schemes. As the online element of any such scheme would be cited as one of its main strong points, potentially this could have major implications for the online identity verification industry.

However, as with previous incarnations of any British identity checks, talk of resurrecting or designing a new online verification system are problematic. For reasons highlighted already during the pandemic, the pros and cons of online ID checking are provoking much debate.

British Identity and the State

The UK has a rather unique relationship with its own residents. Often referred to as “citizens”, in fact anyone born in the country is a Crown Subject. Citizenship became a widely used term when the UK was part of the EU, but now that relationship has ended. With it has also gone the idea of citizens and their “rights” in the widely held usage of the terms.

British subjects have civil liberties, not rights. This is one of the many technical and legal niceties with which the UK’s constitution (which remains unwritten) is riddled. Some of the liberties involved date back to the middle ages, while others are rarely brought to the surface. To do so in the light of the internet is bound to provoke a whole lot of questions about identity and intrusion.

Previous Attempts at ID Verification

The last attempt at a UK identity card scheme began in 2006 with the Identity Cards Act. This was hailed as a way of moving the country’s population forward in the digital age, with every “citizen” able to easily prove their identity, in person or online. The motivation behind the scheme was to prevent fraud of many kinds, but specifically fraudulent access to NHS services by foreign nationals.

The Identity Cards Act 2006 was repealed in 2010. The incoming administration scrapped it immediately in a move popular within its own party and in the wider community. This action seemed to strike a cord with a perceived British distrust of the “surveillance state”. It also had the advantage of saving the new government billions of pounds of investment in a newly austere financial environment.

Coronavirus and Identity

The Covid pandemic, lockdown and ensuing developments have led to calls for a revival of digital ID checks from some quarters; including the previous Prime Minister who introduced the 2006 Act. With public spaces being asked to impose restrictions on customers, verification of identity and residence has taken on added importance and urgency.

In the opinion of its proponents, a digital ID card and scheme would enable business owners and other premises managers to quickly check their customers’ appropriateness, as well as avoiding potential fines and other penalties.

To opponents, however, renewed calls for a national ID scheme are using a time of national crisis as an excuse to erode civil liberties. With a poor track record of testing and tracing technology in the UK, and evidence of abuses elsewhere, any attempt at a UK digital ID scheme faces serious hurdles.