Not Saussure

February 20, 2007

I’ve had an email with Tony’s fingerprints all over it

Filed under: civil liberties, ID cards — notsaussure @ 8:48 pm

As, apparently, have about 28,000 other people, explaining why he intends to ignore our signing the petition against ID cards on the Downing Street website.

Much of the document doesn’t actually have a great deal to do with ID cards; he goes on, for example, at length about the benefits of biometric visas. Apparently

In trials using this technology on visa applications at just nine overseas posts, our officials have already uncovered 1,400 people trying illegally to get back into the UK.

I’ve blogged about this statistic the first time Mr Blair wheeled it out, when I noted that it’s suspicious he doesn’t tell us over how long a period these 1,400 people were caught, how many of them might have been expected to be detected by more conventional means in the normal course of events and how much per person it cost to detect people whose illegal attempts to re-enter the UK would otherwise have gone undetected. And, in any case, whatever this tells us about the utility of biometric visas for foreigners wishing to enter the UK, it doesn’t tell us anything about identity cards for UK nationals who already live here.

Similarly, Mr Blair has much to say about biometric passports, some of which may even be true. However, while it might well be convenient to have a biometric passport to satisfy the rapacious demands for personal information made by the US government should I ever wish to visit that country, that’s no reason — at least not one I can understand — why I should be required to furnish all this information for a domestic ID card that, whatever its supposed uses may be, will be of no earthly use whatsoever for gaining entry to the USA. The idea of particular people and departments being able to store particular information for particular purposes, and only to use if for those purposes, doesn’t seem to feature in Mr Blair’s world.

When he does get on to ID cards, it’s mostly a rehash of old arguments about the benefits of ID cards. Apparently

Terrorists routinely use multiple identities – up to 50 at a time. Indeed this is an essential part of the way they operate and is specifically taught at Al-Qaeda training camps

which means it’s remarkably fortunate the July 11th London bombers chose to carry their genuine driving licences, etc, with them when they launched their attacks on the underground and buses, leaving their 49 fake ones at home, and explains why identification evidence has played so important a role in high-profile terrorism cases recently. The email also contains the assertion that

One in four criminals also uses a false identity

which comes as a bit of a surprise; not the ones who come to the notice of the courts where I work, they don’t, or not to the extent that anyone thinks it’s necessary to charge them with attempting to pervert the course of public justice, using a false instrument or (most recently) Possession of a an Identity Document with the intention of using it to establish registrable facts, which are the three offences I’d most readily associate with that sort of behaviour. I think I’ll write to Mr Blair asking him where he gets the idea from.

He also points out that

the National Identity Register […] will contain less information on individuals than the data collected by the average store card;

well, that’s as may be, but rather ignores the facts that people chose, or not, to have store cards and chose, or not, whether to use them. It also ignores the facts that store cards don’t contain unique identifying numbers that can be used to cross-reference all manner of different records that have nothing to do with each other apart from the fact they relate to the particular individual.

And, while you might not object to Tesco’s marketing department knowing what you buy from their stores, you might not want a third party to have access to this information and to be able to cross reference it with your bank, tax, NI and health details. Nor, had you to produce this store card every time you conducted virtually any sort of transaction anywhere, might you particularly want a third party to be able to study an audit trail of where and when you’d used it.

It also comes as news to me that many store cards contain your fingerprint records and, if they do, that these are shared with the police

to compare the fingerprints found at the scene of some 900,000 unsolved crimes against the information held on the register.

In reply to complaints that we’d been led to believe –silly, gullible old us! — that the police wouldn’t be allowed to go on fishing expeditions through the database, we’ve been reassured by Joan Ryan, the minister responsible for lying about such matters, that they won’t — they’ll have to get the Identity and Passport Services people to undertake the fishing expedition for them:

the Home Office minister responsible for the identity card scheme, Joan Ryan, told the same programme that any check of the identity register would be made by approved Identity and Passport Service staff.”There won’t be any fishing expeditions. That is complete nonsense. That is not what can happen. We’ve always said one of the real advantages of identity cards would be the fight against crime and protecting the public.

“If police want to check fingerprints found at the scene of the crime that they can’t find on their own databases then they will work with IPS staff.

which I’m sure comes as a great relief to us all.

This may have some interesting unintended consequences. Fingerprint evidence isn’t, apparently, anything like as infallible as we tend to assume. The case of PC Shirley McKie is instructive in this respect, and the doubts raised by her case are hardly unique; essentially, when an expert gives his opinion that two sets of fingerprints match he’s saying, in effect, that they are so similar in several respects that it’s pretty likely they come from the same person, but this doesn’t necessarily mean they do, particularly since he may — as was the case with PC McKie — be ignoring the fact that, as well as being remarkably similar in many ways, they’re remarkably dissimilar in others.

What I suspect may happen is that, once a police service is given access to a database of everyone’s fingerprints, we’re going to find out the hard way exactly how many false positives get thrown up by a national trawl for fingerprints.

And, while it’ll doubtless be entertaining — not if you’re one of the false positives, of course, but for the rest of us — to see what happens when the police find that half a dozen people (or however many it is) in different parts of the country all apparently more or less match up to each of these 900,000-odd unmatched fingerprints on the database, dealing with the subsequent (undeserved) disrepute into which this’ll doubtless bring the forensic science service, and with the re-examination of God knows how many convictions that’ll have to follow, is maybe not what the Government were planning.

Technorati Tags: , , ,



  1. Most of this is tosh. If you used more marine references people *might* find it funny.

    Do you wiki-wiki?

    Comment by Lobster Blogster — February 21, 2007 @ 12:57 am

  2. no comment

    Comment by Lobster Blogster — February 21, 2007 @ 10:15 am

  3. I had always understood lobsters to be ‘peaceful, serious creatures, who know the secrets of the sea, and don’t bark.’ Possibly I was mistaken.

    Comment by notsaussure — February 21, 2007 @ 11:23 am

  4. Small point of clarification: I’ve reason to believe that the case of PC McKie was as much about serious professional misconduct on the part of the expert, though you’re quite right to point out that no forensic process is totally free from uncertainty.

    Comment by rainmanlite — February 21, 2007 @ 1:48 pm

  5. Like the 14 year old kid who was mistakenly identified as a crim.

    Comment by jameshigham — February 21, 2007 @ 5:46 pm

  6. I saw that in Mr Eugenides’ article, James.   The really worrying aspect, if you follow the link he provides, isn’t so much that the forensic science people got the wrong results — they rapidly realised that a 14-year-old in Nottingham probably wasn’t one of the Armagh bombers, whatever their DNA tests thought he was — but that they didn’t think to include this information about the dud result they’d rejected when they forwarded their more final conclusions to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, who would then have had to disclose it to the defence.

    The defence in the Armagh trial argue, not unreasonably, that this is information they should have had, not because they wanted to suggest the Nottingham boy was one of the bombers but because they thought the dud results shed a valuable light on the general reliability of such tests.

    Comment by notsaussure — February 21, 2007 @ 11:30 pm

  7. […] Not Saussure: It also comes as news to me that many store cards contain your fingerprint records and, if they do, that these are shared with the police […]

    Pingback by The store card argument « UK Liberty — February 22, 2007 @ 2:15 pm

  8. Tony Blair emails anti-ID scheme petitioners

    At 15.51pm on Tuesday 19th of February, I received an email from the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Mr Blair has apparently written to all 28,000 people, myself included, who signed this petition against the government’s identity card sche…

    Trackback by Magna Carta Plus News — February 23, 2007 @ 10:37 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: