Biometrics – guilty until proven innocent

by David Moss
February 2008


There is a confidence trick at the heart of the UK's ID card scheme. Have you been duped?

There are rolled prints. And there are flat prints. Two types of fingerprinting. Rolled. And flat.

What's the difference? Rolled prints work. Flat prints don't.

In what way? For example, rolled prints are admissible as evidence in court. Flat prints aren't.

Rolled prints have been around for 100 years and are trusted worldwide. Flat prints haven't and aren't.

The Home Office agency responsible for issuing us all with ePassports and ID cards is the Identity and Passport Service (IPS). Do they propose to use rolled prints for ID cards?

Of course not. You can't have a police expert in every bank, taking people's fingerprints with ink, like a bunch of criminals. No, IPS are proposing flat prints. A glorified photocopy of people's fingers. Quick, clean, no expert required. Roughly 20% of the time they don't work. But modern.

Where does this roughly 20% come from? Two sources:

1. The 2004 UK Passport Service biometrics enrolment trial. Flat prints failed with 19% of able-bodied participants and 20% of disabled participants.

2. The US Department of Justice review of the first year of operation of US-VISIT, the system used to control non-US citizens entering the US. 118,000 people a day pass through US-VISIT. 22,350 of them have to undergo a "secondary inspection". 22,350 is 19% of 118,000.

So what? So, when the Prime Minister writes, as he did on 17 January 2008, that biometrics "will make it possible to securely link an individual to a unique identity", the assertion is dubious. Roughly 20% of people look like being left out.

Similarly, when the Minister of State (Borders and Immigration), Liam Byrne MP, writes that "we will be able to link people to a single identity across our systems using biometrics", the assertion is dubious. What is he going to do with the roughly 20% of people who don't have a "single identity"? Not a biometric one at least. There is no known answer.

The Home Office say that:

"By providing a standard, secure way for people to prove their identity when accessing services (e.g. registering with a GP, applying for benefits, a national insurance number or a bank loan, or enrolling children in school) it will be much harder for people here illegally to carry out their daily business if they have no right to be in the UK."

But it won't be harder just for people here illegally. It will be harder for roughly 20% of the rest of us, too.

Never mind criminals and terrorists. If we rely on flat prints, roughly 20% of us normal people will have trouble proving our right to work in the UK. We will have trouble getting non-emergency state healthcare and claiming state benefits. And we will have trouble raising bank loans and getting state education for our children.

People are right to have confidence in rolled prints. They work. But that's not the technology on offer from IPS.

Most people don't realise that there is this question mark over the reliability of our proposed ID cards. Fingerprints are fingerprints, aren't they? Both technologies are called "fingerprinting".

But flat prints don't work. Most people are the victims, therefore, of a confidence trick.

A very successful confidence trick. Even anti-ID card campaigners find it hard to believe that the technology ID cards depend on doesn't work. But it doesn't.

No bank would rely on a technology that is wrong once every five times. There would be an accountholder revolt and a shareholder revolt, and the equity analysts would mark their shares down as a strong sell. So why are IPS recommending this technology? There is no known answer.

Prudence dictates that the Prime Minister and Mr Byrne demand of IPS that they demonstrate that the biometrics ID cards depend on now work. All the evidence says they didn't in 2004. Perhaps they do now. That must be proved before we spend billions of pounds and before we entrust our security and our public services to this dubious technology.

This isn't a matter of judgement. Either the technology works or it doesn't.

It's normal scientific good practice. It's common sense. It requires a large-scale field trial. A large-scale field trial of the sort that the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee said IPS should conduct. And which they still haven't.

And do you know what else the Committee said?

"On 6 March 2006, we met informally a group of senior policy advisers from the Department of Homeland Security to discuss the identity cards programme. When questioned about the maturity of biometric technologies, the advisers agreed that currently the technology was probably not as reliable or as accurate as it might need to be for a national identity card scheme."

If the technology can't be demonstrated to work, then the IPS scheme can safely be cancelled – we won't be missing anything. And we can save the 5 to 6 billion pounds of our money which IPS would otherwise waste for us on ID cards which cannot identify roughly 20% of people.

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

2008 Business Consultancy Services Ltd
on behalf of Dematerialised ID Ltd