Another Labour Minister "on the left" fails to understand Biometrics:
The eyes have it
As the former chairwoman of Liberty, I was against ID cards. But new technology has changed my mind
Thursday November 13, 2003
There are few things more risky in politics than admitting you have changed your mind about a policy you have always vehemently opposed. If you have recently become a minister as well, you can expect the sneers to come thick and fast that your principles have been squashed under the weight of the red box.
My admission is this: like many people I know, I have gradually changed my mind on ID cards. For an ex-chairwoman of Liberty and contributor of plenty of damning articles on the subject over the years, this is not easy to say. But the world has changed with the development of biometric technology. Now, those of us on the left who have always led the charge against previous plans, need to stop and ask ourselves whether the steamroller of hi-tech identification which is heading our way will make matters worse for the poorest and most excluded people in our society if we do not go ahead with a compulsory scheme.
For those on the left who have always opposed ID cards, the argument has gone like this: the state has no right to collect central information on you purely for the purpose of identification. Without a written constitution, people are entitled not to have to be identified unless they are accessing a specific service or committing an offence. Even then, you are more likely to be harrassed by the authorities if you are poor or belong to an ethnic minority. On a practical level, Whitehall has a poor record of delivering big technical projects and the benefits of an ID card have been so oversold that the likely price tag of between ?1.6bn-?3.1bn will be money wasted.
That estimate only covers the waste on the ID Cards themselves, not on the ID Card Reader Infrastructure or the loss in GNP caused by the massive queues which Registration and Enrollment in Person. By insisting on the use of Biometrics, there can be no "offline" savings using postal applications as per Passports or Driving Licences - you will have to use up holidays or take time off work etc. in order to queue and queue and queue.
So what has changed? In a word, biometrics. The development of these hi-tech identifiers of your unique personal characteristics; an iris print, fingerprint or face scan, will revolutionise the way in which we identify ourselves over the next 10 years.
Here we go again, the repetition of the false claim that biometrics are somehow unique. Not even the people with a vested commercial interest in selling the technology dare to make that claim. Your "biometric characteristics" may be reasonably individual to you personally, but that is not the same as saying that what ends up inside a Smart Card or database is "unique" or "unforgeable".
The specious reasoning goes along the lines of: if your Smart ID Card ever gets lost or stolen, there would be no need to worry, since, for example your fingerprint biometric would make it impossible for anybody else to use it, thereby crushing Identity Theft.
Leaving aside the statistics of False Positives, False Negatives, and the small percentage of people with no usable biometric at all (tens of thousands in a population of 60 million) the fact is that you leave your fingerprints all over your ID Card. There is a very high probability (around 80%) that latent fingerprints taken off your ID Card could be used to construct a "false finger" which is sufficient to fool the finger print scanner.
The same fundamental weakness applies to the more secure iris scan technology. This also uses a digital scan or photograph as the basis for the approximation to a biometric identifier. 10 years ago there were very few digital cameras capable of stealing photographs of people's eyes. Nowadays there are literally millions of them, available cheaply from any electronic goods retailer.
When I was opposing home secretary Michael Howard's ID card scheme while at Liberty in 1996, the only option was a piece of plastic no more sophisticated than a library card. Now, the potential to establish ID authentically through biometric identification is so clear that all the G8 countries are rapidly working up their own schemes to make the most of the opportunities it offers.
Biometric systems were available even in 1996, and were rejected then as impractical for non-technological reasons, as they should be now.
I do not trust the UK Government to be able to store my personal data such as "biometric identifiers" securely, let alone other G8 governments such as the USA or Russia with such an dismal record of Government IT insecurity and the corruption of officials with top secret security clearances.
If I'm honest, one unstated reason why I have opposed ID cards is my fear that this is another thing for me to lose. But a powerful opportunity provided by biometric technology is that your iris is part of you, it can't be lost, and in the longer term I envisage a system which depends on a biometric rather than the card.
Biometrics - the password you can never revoke, even when the system has been compromised.
Relying on having to look up the Biometric Identifiers in a database each time rather than comparing it to what is stored on an ID card and making use of a Digital Signature Public key Infrastructure will add orders of magnitude of cost and complexity to the system.
The attitude of the US is accelerating change. Still reeling from the horror of 9/11, the US is now demanding that all visa entrants hold biometric visas from the end of 2004.
But not even the USA has decided to introduce a compulsory ID Card system for its citizens to "protect" them from such terrorist attacks. None of the world's current ID card systems are of any use against crime or terrorism or illegal migration, except as tools of a police state.
Countries such as Britain which still want to take advantage of the visa waiver scheme must put biometrics in passports. As a result, over the next decade the passport service will begin to issue biometric passports routinely as they are renewed. Driving licences will undoubtedly also begin to go biometric. Faced with a world of greater mobility, rapid change and new abuses of identity, the technology will be used whether we like it or not.
It is an astonishing that this Labour Government seems to be intent on handing over sovereignty and sensitive personal data on all of us, to untrustworthy foreign governments, without even, it seems, getting data on their citizens in return.
It is a scandal that the UK Government has aquiesced to US demands for Biometric Passports and Visas, but does not require US visitors to the UK to suffer the same inconvenience and loss of privacy. Border controls between countries should be reciprocal, on an equal footing.
If the Government goes down the International Civil Aviation Organisation route for Biometric Machine Readable Travel Documents , then this will be incompatible with the US Biometric passport system, and not interoperable with any commercial Public Key Infrastructures such as might allow the use of these ID Cards by the commercial sector or e-government in general. This is because the ICAO rightly considers the problem of interoperability, cross domain certification and revocation as too complicated to work, and so they deliberatly are proposing a simplified Public Key Infrastructure to digitally sign their chosen Biometric specifically for Passports and Visas only.
It seems that the UK Government is rightly most impressed with Iris Scans as the most accurate Biometric, but that is not what ICAO standard passports will use, they will use a Digitised Photo, which may or may not include Facial Recognition, and which may or may not also have some kind of Fingerprint (one finger, or two or the full set of ten is unclear). The US Government is going for both index fingers Fingerprints and Facial Recognition.
Anybody with experience of large Government Information Technology projects will have already recognised the signs of an impending project disaster, from the taxpayers' point of view, or a massive Cost Plus cash cow, from the lucky IT contractors' viewpoint.
Those of us on the left have to face reality. If we stick our heads in the sand, the security and opportunity of biometric ID will only be available to the prosperous; those who can afford to travel will find it easier to protect their identity from abuse than the poor and marginalised. If you are already at the margins of society, reliant on the state, you will find it more difficult to vouch for your veracity when opening a bank account or registering at a GP. This is not an acceptable vision of the future for someone who believes in social justice.
So why is the Labour Government proposing what is in effect an ID Card Poll Tax, with all the extra cost and bureaucracy of yet more means tested discounts for the poor ? If this is such a vital and necessary part of our national defence infrastructure, why not pay for it out of central taxation and make it free issue to the people ?
I would prefer to live in a society based on trust. But trust has been abused - by the people traffickers and organised criminals who have done so much damage to the social fabric of our country. Faced with the reality of entitlement fraud, it is fairer to develop a universal way to demonstrate eligibility to services than to rely on a piecemeal approach. Yes, there are risks which we will need to work through. But these risks are no greater than the risks of prejudice and human error which already exist.
The intoduction of compulsory biometric ID cards would introduce additional risks on top of the existing ones.
By treating the majority of innocent people in the same way as serious criminals, by photgraphing them, taking their fingerprints, scanning their irises, centrally registering their names and addresses, the Government is changing the trust relationship between itself and the people.
It is good we are having a debate.
Except that you and your Government have not been listening and have abused the official "Entitlement Card" consultation process.
Despite good intentions we could get this wrong. The people who devised the Vagrancy Act had no idea that 150 years later it would be used to create the "sus" offence which brought so many young black men into conflict with the state. There will be no new powers for the police to demand ID cards and we will be working with the Commission for Racial Equality and others to make sure that it does not have an unfair impact on ethnic minorities.
So you are going to bring back discrimination against the 1 million or so Irish nationals living in the UK instead ? Or are there now to be border controls with Ireland ? Or will the British taxpayer end up paying for an Irish ID card system ?
The technology, the data protection and the way in which access to services is regulated will all need to be worked through. But politics is about taking judgments based on the world we live in, the problems that face it and the scientific advances which are coming. By embracing the need for universal ID cards now, we can safeguard liberty while ensuring the poor and excluded have their identities secured in the modern world.
That is why I have changed my mind and I hope other previously sceptical critics of ID cards will do so as well.
You will have to do a lot better than that in order to convince the neutrals, let alone the sceptics.
How about actually publishing the "pre zero" Office of Government Commerce Gateway Review of this ill-conceived ID Card plan ?
How exactly have the accountants and project managers from the OGC assessed the project risk and the financial implications when there has not been a public announcement of even which Biometric Identifier technologies these ID Cards are meant to use, either singly or in combination ? At the moment there is a vast range of possible levels of security and financial costs.
Where are the anticipated cost/benefit analyses ? What is the estimate of by how much illegal working would be reduced by the ID Card scheme ? How many terrorists will be caught per year by means of the ID card ?
? Fiona Mactaggart is minister for race equality, community policy and civil renewal
You are helping to build an infrastructure of repression which even if it is not abused by this Government, could be a rod for our own backs in the future, in exactly those areas over which you now have Ministerial responsability.
Given the blind faith in vague, undefined Biometric technology shown by Labour Government Ministers, Civil Servants and the Highgate/Islington media commentators, it would be interesting to discover who exactly has been spreading the poisonous meme that "Biometrics" are "unique" or "unforgeable". Perhaps the Freedom of Information Act when it comes into force in 2005 might shed some light on the behind the scenes lobbying which is obviously influencing them.