Expert Advice

What was the central plank of Blair’s argument for handing the police the power to detain terrorist suspects for 90 days without charge?

Why, that it was was the police that had asked for this power and as the ‘experts’ they know best.

Forget all the stuff about public opinion, dodgy surveys and bullshit from the Sun, Blair’s fundamental argument for 90 day detentions was predicated on an absolute belief in the expertise of the police in the matter.

Ok. so if the key test of policy is to be the views of experts, why don’t we look at what a few experts in their field of information technology, identity system and biometrics have to say about the government’s proposals to introduce ID cards.

Let’s start with Jerry Fishenden, National Technology Officer with Microsoft, the single largest software company on the planet.

One major challenge is that no computer system is 100% secure. We’ve seen various prosecutions arising from unauthorised access to computer systems such as the Police National Computer and DVLA. Putting a comprehensive set of personal data in one place produces a ‘honeypot’ effect – a highly attractive and richly rewarding target for criminals. 40 million users’ personal credit card records were compromised recently in the US – highlighting the very real risks such systems face.

We should not be building systems that allow hackers to mine information so easily. Putting all of our personal identity information in a single place is something that no technologist would ever recommend: it leads to increased and unnecessary risk. And it’s poor security and poor privacy practice. Inappropriate technology design could provide new hi-tech ways of perpetrating massive identity fraud on a scale beyond anything we have seen before: the very problem the system was intended to prevent.

How about this from Robert Tavano, a biometrics specialist with Unisys, which has worked on national identity schemes in South Africa and Malaysia:

A national ID card for the UK is overly ambitious, extremely expensive and will not be a panacea against terrorism or fraud

Or this from Unisys UK Managing Director, Brian Hadfield

If we are not careful, from day one it will be almost out of date. As with many programmes, you can work out how much it costs to set up, but it could cost a lot more to maintain its accuracy … it will be a monumental project.

Then there’s Neil Fisher, security solutions director at Qinetiq; a global defence and security contractor who advised the Home Office on its plans, earlier this year:

The Home Office wants matching online because it wants to keep an eye on the bad guys and keep an audit trail. But that means talking over the internet to the central database. We are saying it is a step too far.

Or Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, formerly both chair of Qinetiq and a member of the Joint Intelligence Committee:

… there is a very real danger of disenfranchising innocent people with ‘false positives. The requirement for 100 per cent accuracy is huge and I don’t think we’ve ever seen a system which is 100 per cent accurate. We could get to a situation where we have something incredibly intrusive but also incredibly ineffective.

Simon Rawling – head of project management at global consultancy firm PIPC:

If the LSE is right about basic cost miscalculations, the government’s outdated approach to project delivery could push the final cost as high as £600 per card.

This is not scaremongering from the anti-ID card camp – I strongly support their introduction if properly implemented. Unfortunately, failing public sector IT projects are no longer the exception and huge cost overruns can be confidently predicted.

It’s not so much an opinion as a simple observation: recent public projects have derailed with alarming consistency. Delays to the UK Passport Office alongside failures such as the magistrates’ court Libra project have cost the government billions.

These distinct projects all suffered from fundamentally flawed project management. If this happens to ID cards – and there is no sign of change so far – the final cost could be staggering.

Steve Everhard, CEO of Multos, smartcard specialists who set up Hong Kong’s ID card system:

UK trials of biometric technology for ID cards were too small to give a true picture of how the technology will perform when used by tens of millions of citizens.

I worry about some of the UK trials. Don’t do a trial [for a national ID card scheme] with 30,000 people. Unless you do it with 30 million people you will not learn a thing.

Bart Vansevenant, director of European security strategies for Ubizen, which supplied Belgium’s ID card system.

The point of an ID card is to prove that a person is who they say they are. In order to prove one’s identity, name, home address, date of birth and ultimately signature will suffice for most ‘authorities’. If not, you are probably using the cards to close your million-dollar bank account and further authentication may be needed. Today, if asked to prove your identity, when are you ever asked to leave your fingerprint or to have the iris of your eye scanned? I would think not even once a year.

I wonder when the government will get around to listening to any of these experts – or is it more that experts are only right when they agree with Blair and not otherwise?

Then again, you might as well ask why, in his third reading speech, the Safety Elephant ran through more of less the same points he used at the same stage of the same bill before it ran out of time to due parliament dissolving for the general election when, in between the two speeches, Tony McNulty, his number two in pushing through the bill had this to say about the government’s claims:

Perhaps in the past the government, in its enthusiasm, oversold the advantages of identity cards. We did suggest, or at least implied, that they may well be a panacea for identity fraud, for benefit fraud, terrorism, entitlement and access to public services… Perhaps we ran away with our own enthusiasm.

UPDATE: In comments, Andrew has asked for a source for Tony McNulty’s quoted comments which were widely reported in the media in August.

The comments were made during a Fabian Society policy seminar on ID cards in July this year, as confirmed by this press release.

  • Andrew

    If Mr McNulty’s last comment is true (source?)…then, er, why is the government pursuing this enormous shambles? If it’s not a panacea for id/benefit fraud, entitlement, terrorism etc. – then what is it for?