Most Britons are aware that Big Brother is big but a substantial majority are far from regarding it as brotherly.
YouGov’s survey reveals widespread and deep-seated suspicion of the surveillance society and the proposed national database.
Although a small majority still support the idea of national identity cards, most object to paying more for them than for today’s passports and a large proportion of all those interviewed claim they would rather pay a fine or go to prison rather than being compelled to own such a card.
The survey’s findings suggest, though do not prove, that resistance to the surveillance state, far from diminishing as time goes on, could swell to rebellious proportions.
Any government that persists with identity cards and, even more, with the national database associated with it, will be doing so as its peril.
Nearly half of YouGov’s respondents believe the new database will contain not merely the occasional random error but either a “good deal” (37 per cent) or else a “great deal” (11 per cent) of inaccurate and unreliable information. A mere two per cent are confident it will be totally error-free.
Worse than that, two thirds of those interviewed, believe that, quite apart from the issue of accuracy, no government of any party can be trusted to keep the information on the database entirely confidential and not to divulge it improperly to others.
Only 11 per cent appear to believe that ministers of any political colour can be counted upon to behave properly.
What, then, about the thousands of civil servants and other government employees who will be responsible for maintaining the database? YouGov’s respondents are even more sceptical about their competence and integrity. A massive 82 per cent believe either that there is “some danger” (48 per cent) or “a very real danger” (34 per cent) that individuals will divulge information improperly.
More than half of those questioned, 52 per cent, are either “fairly unhappy” (25 per cent) or “very unhappy” ( 27 per cent) at the idea that personal data will be recorded on the database. The disaffected 52 per cent give a variety of reasons for their unhappiness. Seventy per cent say they “object in principle to this Government or any government keeping on file large amounts of information” about them. “This is a free country”, they feel, “and it is none of their business.”
Even larger proportions fear that information could be leaked and that the database could contain errors with the potential to damage themselves or their interests.
More prosaically, a large proportion reckons that, like so many other government information technology projects, this one “is likely to be a chaotic and costly flop”.
Perhaps because people have not yet made the mental connection between the proposed database and the introduction of identity cards, the opposition to cards, while fierce in many quarters, is not yet as widespread as doubts about the database.
Half those interviewed say they favour introducing cards but that represents a sharp decline compared with the figure who favoured them three years ago.
A significant minority, 39 per cent, are opposed to cards. Asked to explain their opposition, 43 per cent take the high ground: “I object on principle to the whole idea of having identity cards in Britain”.
Another large proportion, 30 per cent, simply fears the cards will cost too much.
The cost clearly looms large. YouGov reminded respondents that a passport costs £66 and asked how much they would be prepared to pay for a combined biometric passport and national identity card.
Fully 44 per cent replied “Nothing” and another 41 per cent said they would not go higher than £66 and might not be prepared to pay that much. A mere 11 per cent seem happy with paying anywhere near the Government’s current estimate of £100.
More than a third of the 39 per cent who object – representing more than 10 per cent of the population – suggested they might take their opposition to considerable lengths.
Considerable numbers claim they would be prepared to pay a small or even a heavy fine for refusing to acquire a card and some say they would to go to prison. Nearly one in 10 is happy to say: “I will acquire a card but publicly destroy it”.
A massive 79 per cent of respondents reckon a “surveillance society” is already upon us and 37 per cent feel they are being spied upon.
• Anthony King is professor of government at Essex University.
ID Interrogation Centres