Talking Point

by David Moss

Pharmacy Magazine*, 22 June 2009


The Home Office has a new business opportunity for pharmacy. Collect everyone's biometrics (fingerprints and facial geometry) for the identity card scheme and you could share in an estimated revenue stream of £200m a year. It's enticing – but should you go for it?

According to the Home Office, the biometrics on ID cards and ePassports and visas will help to reduce crime and increase security. So what are you to make of the fact that former M15 chief Stella Rimington disagrees? As do the banks – they have refused to get involved in the National Identity Scheme. Accenture and BAE Systems want nothing to do with it either. Nor does the airline industry. Why should you step in where others have refused? What do you know that they don't?

If the Government makes the scheme compulsory and you face no competition, then perhaps you can't fail to make money – but you would face competition. While the Home Office is asking pharmacists, among others, to register everyone's biometrics, Peter Mandelson is equipping post offices to collect biometrics for driving licences.

But will the National Identity Scheme ever happen? Labour seems to want it to but the Conservatives and the Lib Dems have promised to cancel the scheme. Are you in the political forecasting business or the pharmacy business?

We don't know the answers to many of the questions posed here, but we do know the answer to that one. You are pharmacists. You look at the evidence and you draw your conclusions accordingly. You do not guess. You do not just hope. That doesn't work.

And if you look at the results of the 2004 UK Passport Service biometrics enrolment trial, what do you find? You find that 31 per cent of participants could not have their identity verified by their facial geometry. That was the able-bodied participants. For the disabled, the figure rose to 52 per cent. And you find that 19 per cent of the able-bodied participants, and 20 per cent of the disabled, could not have their identity verified by their fingerprints.

We'll come back to that point about fingerprints but for the moment, just note that there is a good chance that this technology you're being asked to use doesn't even work – not reliably enough to prove people's right to work in the UK or prove their right to non-emergency state healthcare or the right of their children to state education.

Suppose that 20 per cent of the customers who register their biometrics with you are then informed that they have no right to work. Is that likely to increase the goodwill in your business?

Now back to fingerprinting. Traditional fingerprinting works but that is not what the Home Office is proposing. It is asking you to use a new technology, flat print fingerprinting – a glorified photocopying process. And that, as the UK Passport Service found, fails 19-20 per cent of the time.

If you have spent your working life as a pharmacist building a dignified and confidence-inspiring professional and commercial reputation, you are now being asked to risk all that on a business opportunity with no scientific foundation. A lot of commercial decisions are difficult. This doesn't look like one of them.

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* Pharmacy Magazine is not yet available on the web.

David Moss has spent six years campaigning against the Home Office's ID card scheme.

2009 Business Consultancy Services Ltd
on behalf of Dematerialised ID Ltd