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Tony Blair UK Digital ID Rejected by Labour Government But Decentralized Alternatives Could Address Public Concerns

Published July 9, 2024 11:05 AM
James Morales
Published July 9, 2024 11:05 AM

Key Takeaways

  • Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called on the new government to embrace digital identities.
  • However, ministers have distanced themselves from his comments.
  • National identity schemes have proven unpopular among the British public, but decentralized alternatives could help assuage concerns.

Since the British electorate ousted the Tory government and returned Labour to power after 14 years in opposition, former Prime Minister Tony Blair has offered up some advice to his political and ideological heir Kier Starmer.

But at least one of his proposals – a national digital ID scheme to help curb illegal immigration – has already been rejected by the new government. 

Labour Distances Itself From Former PMs ID Comments

In an article for the Times, Blair raised the ghost of an unpopular and ultimately unworkable Labour policy from his time as Prime Minister: compulsory ID cards.

While the government’s since-scrapped scheme was originally based on physical ID cards, in 2024, Blair argued that digital IDs offer the best solution to controlling irregular immigration, which was a key issue for voters during the recent election campaign. 

We should move as the world is moving to digital ID,” he declared in an apparent reference to schemes like the EU Digital Identity  project.

However, government representatives moved swiftly to emphasize that Blair’s comments didn’t reflect the Labour Party’s official policy. “We can rule that out, that’s not something that’s part of our plans,” stressed Home Secretary Yvette Cooper in a radio interview at the weekend. 

By disavowing the former Prime Minister’s suggestion, the government has distanced itself from an unpopular policy among the British public. But why are ID cards so controversial in the UK?

Civil Rights and Privacy Concerns

Initially proposed by Blair’s government in the early 2000s, the ID card scheme was part of a broader strategy to enhance national security and combat identity fraud. However, it quickly became a lightning rod for criticism, with civil rights groups and privacy advocates arguing that it represented an unnecessary and intrusive expansion of state power.

One of the most vocal opponents of the scheme was the advocacy group NO2ID, which campaigned relentlessly against the introduction of ID cards. 

In a report  to parliament, the group encapsulated the British public’s deep-seated aversion to the concept: “We believe that it is everyone’s fundamental right to assert who they are, who they choose to be, without being checked against an approved list; that citizens should not need the permission of the state to exist.”

Significantly, even in 2005, NO2ID observed that secure authentication systems that don’t require “constant reference to a central identity database” were technically feasible and “would have numerous advantages.” However, it concluded that the government’s plans were incompatible with such a model.

Decentralized Digital Identities

In the years since NO2ID’s campaign against Tony Blair’s national ID card scheme, major advancements in decentralized technology have occurred. Between blockchains, zero-knowledge proofs and end-to-end encryption there now exist strong foundations for governments to build more trustless, self-sovereign identity systems.

On the one hand, countless crypto developers have built solutions that issue digital identity credentials as public-private key pairs on Ethereum and other popular blockchains. 

Meanwhile, Big Tech firms including Microsoft and IBM have embraced  decentralized access management platforms that share many of the features of emerging national digital identity systems without sacrificing personal data sovereignty.

“There is a misconception that in order for people to prove who they are digitally and with trust, there must be a central national ID database or that we must all have a government-issued national ID card,” remarked Nick Mothershaw, Chief Identity Strategist at the Open Identity Exchange 

However, “a well-designed digital ID can be issued by a certified private sector provider and stored in a person’s own ‘digital wallet’ for them to control who it is shared with, without the ability for any one organization or government to follow their movements,” he told CCN. 

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