Not Saussure

January 13, 2007

ID cards… yet another crack in the wall

Filed under: civil liberties, ID cards — notsaussure @ 10:12 am

Hate to say, ‘Told you so!’ but we did…

The first residence permits to be issued to foreign nationals from next year will not contain iris information, the Home Office has said.

The first cards will now rely on other biometric tests, such as facial recognition and fingerprints.

The development will provide fuel for critics who argue plans for a national biometric ID card are not on track.

Tony Blair said in November all non-EU nationals will need ID cards to work or access public services from 2008.

Mr Blair has said that capturing fingerprint and iris scans electronically will provide an opportunity for more secure protection of personal identities.

Critics say the technology is flawed, pointing to problems with a pilot project using iris recognition at Heathrow airport last year.

A Conservative MP said earlier this week that air passengers were facing major delays because of the scheme and that it had failed half of its assessments in an official report.

Ever since they started on about using iris identification, people have been pointing out that it doesn’t do too well in tests and that it’s utterly misguided to think you can take something that works reasonably well (not perfectly or excellently) when you’re using it for a specific task like limiting access to parts of an Australian airport to the few hundred Quantas staff you’ve got on your list of authorised personnel and who are used to using the system and then scale it up to something that records and matches the details of several million people at a time, in all sorts of environments and contexts, without running into a few problems.

For one thing, when the system fails, on occasion, to recognise the particular individual first time round, that just delays him for a few seconds. If it fails to recognise him at all, for whatever reason, and he has to ask security to buzz him through, that’s a minor inconvenience you can live with. Scale that up to trying to get thousands of people an hour through airport arrivals, though, and you’ve got chaos.

For some reason, the Home Office mantra, which we’ve heard so often before about ID cards and everything else they touch that goes wrong (an example of the rhetorical figure pleonasm there, I think, fails to impress:

But the Home Office says problems have been dealt with and the scheme is still being rolled out at other airports and is not being ruled out as an option for the national ID card scheme in the future.

Two matters occur to me immediately. First, the iris scans were presumably originally included for a good reason — one assumes they were thought to make the system more secure and less vulnerable to forgery and fraud and that the advantages of having this extra level of security were great enough to outweigh the disadvantages of added inconvenience and cost. Now that they’re not going to available, we won’t have those benefits. Have we reassessed how secure the system will be now it lacks these measures once thought to be vital? Is it still secure enough to be worth establishing without them?

Second, a related point. These scans didn’t exist in isolation, I suspect. People designing other aspects of the system must have assumed they’d be there and available for, for example, cross-referencing if other checks failed and they may have been used to help generate some of the security algorhythms. Have we assessed how well other aspects of the ID card scheme are going to work without them?

These, it seems to me, would be pretty obvious questions to ask if the people designing the security system for your new headquarters building came back to you late in the day and told you that they couldn’t get iris scans to work for it so you’d have to do without.

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1 Comment »

  1. You do rather assume that some designing of the system has gone on. There is very little sign of that.

    On the other hand, there’s been a good deal of devising… of means to sell the system to politicians, and measures to force the public into the system. Technical considerations are very much subordinate to establishing the principle that a single file will be kept on everyone, and everyone must account to officials for their whereabouts.

    The best, and most telling, bit of this story is the idea that iris scans may be too unreliable, therefore we are going to use “facial recognition” as the “biometric”. A classic piece of misleading Home Office speak. Machine facial recognition is entirely hopeless, but they want us to think there’s some magic technology there to justify all the fuss (and the database, and the extra checking protocols). But what they clearly mean is there will be photos for immigration officers to look at.

    Comment by guy herbert — January 13, 2007 @ 6:25 pm

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