Confusion and the Home Office
We have a Home Secretary who believes that ID cards should be essential to everyday life and at the same time he believes that they should not be compulsory .
With political confusion at the top, how are the civil service getting on? Is policy still implemented by the Home Office with classical logic, informed by a sense of history and a clear grasp of the objectives? Does their executive agency, the UK Border Agency (UKBA), still doggedly get on with the job, practical public servants devoted to their task?
A year ago, in August 2008, UKBA started a six-month field trial of facial recognition technology at Manchester airport. The same technology that the Home Secretary's ID cards might depend on one day, the same technology that ePassports and biometric visas for non-EEA nationals already depend on.
Six months later, in February 2009, they announced that the technology would be deployed to 10 UK passenger terminals, to speed up the process of crossing the border and to allow UKBA to deploy their staff more optimally.
The implication is that the Manchester trial showed that facial recognition technology works. That's why UKBA could "pledge", to use their word, that it would make crossing the border quicker and make the border more secure.
But the results of the Manchester airport field trial have not been published. And if you ask UKBA why they believe that facial recognition technology will deliver these benefits, they don't mention the Manchester trial results.
Instead, they cite a computer-based study reported by the US National Institute of Standards and Technology. And if you read that report, you find that it shows that the technology is unreliable, it fails to verify the identity of between 8% and 19% of people.
Even those results may be optimistic. The Home Office's own earlier field trial of facial recognition technology, in 2004, showed that it failed between 31% and 52% of the time. "ID cards scheme dubbed 'a farce'", said the BBC , among others.
Are UKBA going to stop between 8% and 52% of people from boarding their plane, boat, train or ferry because a computer says they aren't who they say they are? If so, the TV news promises to be interesting. If not, what is the point of wasting our money on this unreliable technology?
How will this technology make crossing the border easier? And how will UKBA be able to deploy their staff more effectively if they have to waste their time investigating the false allegations made by this technology?
UKBA are relying on a report that shows that the technology is unreliable, while ignoring the results of their own earlier trial and failing to publish the results of the Manchester airport trial. It looks unfortunately as though the public is being misled and it looks unfortunately like more confusion at the top.
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