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Economist throws doubt on the current value of biometrics

The following editorial was published in the latest Economist:

The ability to recognise people automatically by analysing bodily characteristics such as fingerprints, faces and eyeballs – collectively known as biometrics – has long been a goal of technologists and governments alike.

Plans for large-scale projects to incorporate biometric scans into passports, ID cards and visas are now under way in several countries. From January 5th, America will begin scanning foreigners from particular countries as they arrive at its airports. Both America and Europe plan to start issuing biometric passports as soon as next year. Biometric ID cards are being adopted in Hong Kong and Oman, and Britain plans to follow suit. Politicians seem to be transfixed by the technology.

Typical was the recent declaration by David Blunkett, Britain’s home secretary, that biometrics “will make identity theft and multiple identity impossible – not nearly impossible, impossible”. This claim is absurd. Current biometric technology is not the answer to the world’s security fears.

→ Continue reading: Economist throws doubt on the current value of biometrics

U.K. to consider national biometric ID cards database

ComputerWorld reports on the U.K. government set to consider legislation next year for the establishment of compulsory biometric identity cards and a central database of all U.K. subjects.

The information that the government is considering for inclusion on the card includes personal details such as a person’s home address and telephone number, his National Insurance number (the equivalent of the U.S. Social Security number), medical information and criminal convictions, as well as the biometric information, most likely in the form of an iris, fingerprint or palm print scan.

The ID cards would be rolled out in two stages, beginning with the biometric identifiers being included on renewed and newly issued passports and driver’s licenses. Also as part of the first phase, once the national database was available, the government would issue identity cards to European Union and foreign nationals seeking to remain in the U.K., and would also offer an optional card for those who do not have a passport or driver’s license. As part of the second phase of the program, to be implemented five years after its launch, the national ID card would become compulsory.

The government estimates that residents will be charged about $41 for the card and that setting up the basic system will cost taxpayers $215 million, and up to $3.59 billion to fully implement.
In a speech to the House of Commons on Nov. 11, Blunkett asserted that the development of technology that recognizes specific personal identifiers, or biometrics, “would mean that identity could not be forged or duplicated.” But the government’s own feasibility study on the use of biometrics issued in February said such methods “do not offer 100% certainty of authentication of individuals” and went on to warn that the “practicalities of deploying either iris or fingerprint recognition in such a scheme are far from straightforward.”

Bart Vansevenant, director of security strategy at Ubizen NV, said his company sees no real value for adding biometrics to ID cards, especially since it wouldn’t stop terrorism or fraud. Ubizen has been working on Belgium’s electronic ID card scheme, the first in Europe to move beyond the pilot stage, according to Vansevenant. The Belgian ID cards, which should be fully rolled out in three to four years, use digital certificate technology, which is cheaper and more reliable than biometrics, Vansevenant said.

There is no reason that is good enough to explain the use of biometrics. It is still a very immature technology, plus you have the additional costs of equipment, support and administration problems… Vansevenant also expressed serious doubts about the security of a national database. It is a pretty bad idea, especially the database, which would be an ideal target for hackers and terrorists.

Perhaps the U.K. and the U.S. [which is proposing the use of biometric data on U.S. passports] are using biometrics and related databases from a marketing point of view and trying to position it as the big solution to the problem of terrorism. But even then, it’s still a bad idea.


Biometric cards will not stop identity fraud

New Scientist has learned that the proposed system to introduce identity cards in the UK will do nothing to prevent fraudsters acquiring multiple identity cards.

Unveiling the proposals last week, the home secretary, David Blunkett, said they are necessary to prevent identity fraud. Every resident would have to carry an ID card containing biometric information, such as an iris scan. Cards could then be checked against a central database to confirm the holder’s identity.

But Simon Davies, an expert in information systems at the London School of Economics and director of Privacy International, says the system would not stop people getting extra cards under different names. If he is correct, it could have far-reaching implications.

The problem, says Davies, is the limited accuracy of biometric systems combined with the sheer number of people to be identified. The most optimistic claims for iris recognition systems are around 99 per cent accuracy – so for every 100 scans, there will be at least one false match.

Bill Perry, of the UK’s Association for Biometrics, agrees that there is an upper limit to the reliability of iris scans.

It’s not an exact science. People look at biometrics as being a total solution to all their problems, but it’s only part of the solution.

He added that using more than one biometric identifier – for example, iris scans and fingerprints together will also be considered. This would solve the accuracy problem, but vastly increase the cost.

Oh, jolly good. So scanned and finger-printed is the way to go…

Thanks to Groc’s Bloggette for the link.

EU on the road to 1984

Statewatch reports that the European Commission has produced two draft Regulations (25.9.03) to introduce two sets of biometric data (fingerprints and facial image) on visas and resident permits for third country nationals by 2005. The biometric data and personal details on visas will be stored on national and EU-wide databases and be accessible through the Visa Information System (VIS) held on the Schengen Information System (SIS II).

Another proposal for the inclusion of biometrics and personal data: “in relation to documents of EU citizens, will follow later this year”.

Statewatch summarises the proposals:

  1. biometric documents for visas and resident third country nationals to be introduced by 2005
  2. biometric passports/documents for EU citizens to follow
  3. “compulsory” fingerprints and facial images
  4. data and personal information to be held on national and EU-wide databases
  5. admission that powers of data protection authorities cannot cope
  6. no guarantees that data will not be made available to non-EU states (eg: USA)

Tony Bunyan, Statewatch editor, comments:

These proposals are yet another result of the “war on terrorism” which show that the EU is just as keen as the USA to introduce systems of mass surveillance which have much more to do with political and social control than fighting terrorism.

Servants become masters

What do you call a country which is run by the police for the benefit of the police? Is that a ‘police state’? Yes, I think that qualifies. Surely it does?

SENIOR police officers will call this week for the DNA of everyone in Britain to be put on a national database from the moment they are born.

They believe that this would be a vital weapon in the drive to curb crime and help to solve hundreds of murders.

[From the UK Times]

Some nerve those plods have got! Assuming that nothing has been lost in the media translation, I detect not even a hint of humility. After all, they are supposed to be public servants. And what next, I wonder? ‘Police demand increase in income tax to help fight crime’? ‘Police demand greater integration with the European Union to help fight crime? ‘Police demand greater regulation of world trade in order to fight crime’?

What disturbs me here is not so much the idea of a national DNA database. Okay, that does disturb me but HMG hasn’t got the money to fund such a grand scheme so it isn’t going to happen (yet). No, the ugliness is more immediate than that; it lies in the casual assumption by police chiefs that they can simply demand such a thing and expect their will to be done without even paying lip service to the principle of democracy that most people in this country set great store by. Who died and left them boss?

The crime-solving canard has worn so thin that it is almost beyond mockery. Solving crimes is something that the UK police are not much interested in doing anymore. Population control is now their job (‘Social Management’ in NuSpeak). And as they now regard themselves to be a uniformed wing of the ruling elite, I suppose we’re going to get much more of this kind of thing from them in future.

So now we are the servants and they are the masters. How did that happen?

Cross-posted from Samizdata.net

Not so anonymised after all

Maybe White Rose should have an additional category entitled “Better Late Than Never”. I’ve certainly done several such WR postings.

Here’s another, from the Independent on August 25th:

The case of Stephen Kelly, who was found guilty in February 2001 of culpable and reckless behaviour, exemplifies the way the police and courts can access medical details collected as part of a research project.

That establishes that we’re dealing with a different Kelly. The guts of the story is that supposedly anonymous research data ended up being used to prosecute somebody, which is just the kind of thing we are constantly promised isn’t going to happen, can’t happen, must never happen, etc.

During the investigation of Kelly, police obtained the anonymised codes from patient medical records and used them to seize the scientific evidence that established the genetic similarity between the Aids viruses Kelly and his girlfriend had.

So much for “anonymised”.

Professor Leigh Brown was angry at the information being used. “These databases will have an important role to play in developing our understanding of genetic variation and disease, but what will protect them from seizure by legal authorities?”


More DNA database debate

I always feel that whenever someone says that there is “no question” of something happening, it means there is and someone’s just asked it, and I now realise that I further suspect that when someone important enough to be quoted about it says that something is “essential”, without actually saying that it is going to happen, the game is up there too. If that’s right, then this is bad news:

The scientist in charge of setting up Britain’s DNA databank, which will collect information on the lifestyle, health and genes of 500,000 people, said he will oppose any attempt by police or the courts to gain access to the data.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, Dr John Newton said strict confidentiality is essential if the UK Biobank project is to enjoy the public confidence it needs to succeed. Three years ago, police forced medical scientists in Edinburgh to hand over the confidential data of another research project to prosecute a volunteer in the study.

Critics of the UK Biobank, which aims to compare the influence of genes and lifestyle on the health of half a million volunteers, says there is nothing to stop this information also being used by the police, employers or insurance companies.

This paragraph sounds better:

But Dr Newton said there were no plans for a national biobank covering the entire population. He also questioned whether the information held on UK Biobank would be of any interest to the police. “People fear police will take a DNA sample from the scene of a crime, do a DNA test on it, then go to Biobank and run that DNA against our 500,000 and say, ‘OK, it was you’, and fish them out. As far as I understand it, they won’t be able to do that. We will not have done the entire DNA sequence of every participant, so we will simply not have the information on the same genetic variables that the police use [for DNA fingerprinting]. It is very difficult to say ‘never’, but I can’t see how Biobank will help police.”

But I suppose the danger here is not that this is already checkmate for genetic confidentiality, but that things are advancing (i.e. perhaps getting worse) one little step at a time.

First things first. First establish the principle that it’s okay to have a national DNA database. Then beef up what’s in it, to the point where the police could do what Dr Newton says they now couldn’t. Then allow the police to do just that. Then other government agencies get in on it …

Watchdog set to reject genetic screening

FT.com reports that the UK government’s proposal to genetically screen all newborn babies and store the information in a database is likely to be rejected by the Human Genetics Commission, the watchdog set up by Labour in 1999 to monitor advances in biotechnology, on the grounds of being unworkable, expensive and potentially threatening to civil liberties.

Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, the head of the HGC, said the medical benefits of the Human Genome had been over-hyped, leading to unrealistic expectations and the threat of discrimination against people who carried certain genes.

It is one of those things that initially has great attraction: The idea that you might be able, at the begining of your life, to know so much about yourself that you can pretty much chart your life appropriately, make sure that you have twice the normal helping of spinach and therefore throw off the chance of getting a disease. But it does not take account of where a child might be living, what it might be susceptible to because of its environment, and all the other factors that interact with your genes and change the prognosis.

The proposal to test all babies was announced in a White Paper published in June. It promised £50m ($80.4m) to expand the ability of the National Health Service to cope with the rapid advance in genetic testing.

Past the Point of Reasons Why

The Guardian reports that the government wants biometric iris-recognition machines installed in ten UK airports within a year.

The scanners will probably be welcomed by regular travellers for “speeding them past immigration queues”. Simply look the machine in the eye and say goodbye.

How many will consider the privacy ramifications of saving a few minutes at the airport? Are we to believe that once a big enough database is established these machines will not spread?

How long before we are scanned every time we enter a public place and that information recorded centrally? All to protect society, of course.

It seems Big Blunkett is determined to get us all on file by any means necessary.

DNA crime database for sale

This is one of those stories that Richard Littlejohn would classify under “You Couldn’t Make It Up”. I’m sure White Rose will have more to say about it than this one posting. For now I hardly have time to do more than flag it up before going to bed.

The national DNA database containing more than two million samples could end up in the private sector under Government plans to sell off the Home Office Forensic Science Service (FSS).

This is toxic. You gather information about people without any consent (because being arrested isn’t that kind of deal) and then you turn the management of the resulting database into a business. Objections? Where do you start? How long do we have?

Call this whatever other names you want, but don’t you dare call it “pure” capitalism, or the “extreme” free market.

Last night, the proposed sale threatened to become the most controversial since the privatisation of the air traffic control system.

I’ll say.

“Law abiding citizens have nothing to fear …”

News yesterday of the steady expansion of Britain’s national DNA database. From the Guardian:

Civil liberties campaigners last night claimed the government was intent on building a national DNA database “by stealth” as police prepared to enter the two-millionth genetic profile on to the system later today.

The police minister, Hazel Blears, who will load the sample on to the system, claimed last night that since 1995 the national DNA database has transformed the fight against crime, helping to catch not only serious criminals but also more minor offenders such as burglars and car thieves.

The British DNA database was the first and is the biggest in the world with currently more than 1.8 million criminal profiles and around 200,000 DNA samples from unsolved crimes, including blood and semen stains.

. . .

The Liberal Democrat Simon Hughes said this meant those who were never charged or who were subsequently found innocent would be unable to remove their details.

“Now that one in every 30 people features on the police DNA database, the government must come clean on its intentions,” he said. “If ministers want a database of every citizen’s DNA, let them say so instead of trying to create one by deception.”

The civil rights organisation Liberty claimed the government was hell-bent on creating a national DNA database by stealth, and that academics had warned it was not foolproof.

Several test cases are in progress in the US over how unique a DNA match actually is. Even the British founder of DNA fingerprinting, Professor Sir Alec Jeffreys, has warned that samples involving only a small number of cells could prove misleading, as we are all potentially covered in bits of other people.

But Ms Blears last night defended the growing use of the DNA database. “DNA profiles… play a vital role in the search for truth, establishing innocence as well as proving guilt. Law abiding citizens have nothing to fear and today I will have a sample of my own DNA taken and loaded on to the database.”

Ah yes, law abiding citizens have nothing to fear. But that is assuming that there are only a reasonable number of laws, and that most of us never break them. But what if there are tons of new laws being passed every year, and most of us, including Ms Blears, have no idea what they all consist of, and most of us are breaking some of them every day of our lives? What, in short, if none of us are “law abiding” any more?

Treated like criminals

EU Observer has an article about the European Commission’s proposal to treat European citizens as criminals or at least as criminal suspects. No really.

Apparently, the heads of state for EU countries who met in Greece last week have given the ‘green light’ to the process of collection of biometric data such as fingerprints, iris scan or DNA for a chip inbedded in the passports of all EU citizens.

Thomas Rupp of the European Referendum Campaign is not impressed:

Somehow – obviously – I suffer from a clash of realities: Didn’t a lot of people last year talk about “democratisation” of the European Union and making it more “citizen friendly”? – Right: this event was called the “Convention on the Future of Europe”. Obviously the future of Europe now begins with the need of EU citizens to provide their most intimate data to the state.


Provided this law will pass and they ask me for my personal data… Shall I give my fingerprints – or even my DNA – to a growing state which does not fulfil the minimum standards of a modern democracy? Where there is no separation of powers? That has a parliament, which has no right to initiate law? Where – instead – non-elected public servants have the monopoly to initiate law, which in the end is decided by the executives of the member states – avoiding control by their national parliaments?


Suppose I refuse to give away my fingerprints? What would happen? Would I immediately be classified a criminal? Someone who has to hide something, with bad intentions? Would I have to go to jail? Would I have to leave the European Union?

Well, rhetorical questions aside, there are no surprises here from the European Commission.

Link via World Watch Daily.