Sunday, April 11, 2004

more on Blunkettismo
Chris Lighfoot has been on the case over I D cards, now due to be inflicted in 2008. Bottom line: they don’t work.

Suppose that the comparison of (say) iris photographs is 99.99% accurate: that is, when you compare my iris photograph against my reference photograph, the system identifies me correctly in 9,999 out of 10,000 cases, and says it's not me one time in 10,000. Similarly, when you compare my iris photograph against someone else's, 9,999 times out of 10,000, it says it's not me, and one time out of 10,000 it says it is me.

Now suppose that I go down to ID Cards 'R' Us (proprietor: Capita plc., most likely) to get an ID card. My iris is photographed, and to ensure that I'm not a Bad Evil Terrorist, my iris photograph is compared against the reference photographs for everyone else in the database (about 40,000,000 people). Even with a 0.01% error rate, the system will come up with 4,000 matches to me -- that's 4,000 people who have to be individually checked to make sure that they're not actually false identities that belong to me.

And for those who think that “the civil liberties case has been refuted”, try this:

In 1938 the Gestapo were presented with a glittering prize. The Anschluss- the unity of hitherto democratic Austria and Nazi Germany - put them in charge of the Vienna headquarters of the ICPC, the forerunner to Interpol. Thus, they had access to thousands of files on convicted or suspected criminals and their associates. Since many of the files on suspects dealt with politically-motivated crime, they were a godsend to an organisation that was about to take over most of Europe. ICPC knowledge helped them compile arrest lists. Even more useful for repression, deportation and terror were the captured police files of the conquered governments.

Why is this historical fact important? Because it’s a warning about the dangers that lurk in the scheme now being proposed by the government to create a national database and an ID card system. This might solve some crimes: it will certainly hand a weapon to any future ill-intentioned regime. Rather than being a move to increase safety and get rid of risk, it is a huge gamble. To adopt it would be to bet that nothing as nasty as Nazism will ever get close to state power again. It’s also to bet that nothing as nasty as Al Quaida or pIRA never gets its hands on a copy of the database. Forever is a long time.

The ‘liberal democracies’, some of which have more than two hundred years (just three lifetimes) of political continuity, have from time to time pursued highly illiberal and undemocratic policies, as members of racial minorities (such as ethnically Japanese US citizens) or victims of Cold War paranoia will testify. A national database would enable the government and its successors to keep track of everyone, all the time, for ever. If this measure ever gets passed, we’d better hope that, against all the evidence, Francis Fukuyama’s proclamation of ‘the end of history’ was right. Or do we not care about our grandchildren?

Chris titles his piece "Is all hope now lost". Personally, I've got some residual faith that the government's chronic incompetency, especially in technical matters, will manifest itself at an early enough stage to derail the plan. Other than that, we need some heroic hackers to make some demonstration forgeries and broadcast how they did it. I'm sure I'm being naive, but maybe information wants us to be free too.