Here's something you'll really like

Do you ever get the feeling you're being governed by a cartoon moose? If not, consider the federal government's plans for a biometric national ID card. In a filler segment in the old Rocky and Bullwinkle show, Bullwinkle the moose would invite his friend Rocky the flying squirrel to watch him pull a rabbit out of a hat. "Oh Bullwinkle, that trick never works," Rocky would say, and Bullwinkle would invariably and blithely reply "This time for sure" before equally invariably pulling out a lion, a tiger or a rhinoceros. Yet Bullwinkle was no more likely than Canada's federal government to wonder why his trick kept going wrong.

Suppose you were contemplating a potentially highly intrusive citizen registration project involving more people, more complex technology and more information per card than ever before. What's the first thing you'd do? Initiate a study group on its relation to the Federal Plan for Gender Equity? Hire 10 expensive consultants to ponder its bilingual aspects? Put out a press release on how it will enhance public health care?

Perhaps. But the right response would be to ask yourself whether you'd ever tried anything like it before. If you had, and your attempts had often gone wrong, you'd then try to figure out why, so you could avoid it happening again.

For instance, the gun registry. Forget for now whether effective gun control is a good thing, because there is little point in debating possible uses of a bunny when all you can actually get out of your hat is a lion. How can the government expect to register its citizens until it understands why it failed so dismally in registering a far smaller number of inanimate objects?

Perhaps by drawing on its extensive experience in registering citizens through the Social Insurance card. But it looks more like a tiger than a rabbit to me, folks. Again, forget for now any questions you may have about the project of giving us all numbers to facilitate efficient processing of the human units. Forget also that the government was less than honest in its initial assurances that the SIN would only ever be used for pensions and unemployment insurance (whose previous registration system had, believe it or not, collapsed into chaos), and would never, word of honour, appear on the income tax form.

Sure, we'd be suckers to believe it again. But at the moment my concern is with preventing the state, not its citizens, from acting like a cartoon moose. So remember the ruckus back in 2002 over the Auditor General's warning that there were some five million more SIN cards than Canadians over 20. And that back in 1998 the Auditor General had issued a similar warning, about a mere 3.8 million excess cards, prompting Human Resources Development Canada to leap into committee (five working groups and a request for more money) but not to stop accepting photocopies as proof of citizenship and identity. In 2001 HRDC found that it had often mailed over 100 SIN cards with different numbers to the same address within a year, in one case 225 of them. Might one ask why? Do they still?

Next, if you can stand it, consider recent revelations that there are no controls on the issuance of Certificate of Indian Status cards. OK, they keep them in a locked cabinet. But they mail out blank cards in bulk to First Nations who request them without any kind of national control system. It looks like a rhinoceros to me.

I don't doubt that we need better border controls. But in devising them we need to make sure we're debating the right issues. It's not even clear that biometrics is a good technological solution, because when it fails, it fails badly. If someone forges your instant teller card the bank can issue you a new one with a new PIN, but if someone forges your biometric ID you can't get a new eyeball. But the real issue here isn't the "fragility" of biometrics, or the potential misuses of an effective national ID card. It's fatuous confidence in a technological solution to a non-technological problem, the chronic tendency of government registries to be riddled with errors.

The federal government reaches into the hat and pulls out five million bad SIN cards, a $1-billion gun registry full of laughable errors, and a big stack of blank Indian Status cards that entitle the bearer to a range of expensive benefits. Normal, three-dimensional people would be chastened by such experience. Yet it remains blithely unaware, in fact and in rhetoric, that it is even capable of making a significant number of mistakes, let alone prone to it.

Instead, it says "Hey, citizens, watch me pull a reliable biometric ID card out of this hat." And when we reply "That trick never works" it stands there, looking stupid and self-satisfied, and says what it always says. "This time for sure."


[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson