Blow me down


by David Moss
August 2008


"ID card scheme faces new hurdle", says the Guardian article, there are "fresh problems following a warning from the government's top scientific advisers that the quality of fingerprints from 4 million people aged over 75 may be too poor to be used to prove their identity". Who'd have thought it?

Cast your mind back five-and-a-half years, to the publication of the National Physical Laboratory's feasibility study into the use of biometrics. That's the report commissioned by the Home Office as part of the ID cards scheme. That's the report that says on p.34 that there can be problems registering people's fingerprints, particularly for older people.

We don't want any more shocks, so be warned, the report also advises that it can be difficult to register the fingerprints of people with missing hands or fingers, manual labourers, East Asians and women.

Perhaps the Home Office simply didn't get around to reading the report? It's possible, but one of the report's authors, Marek Rejman-Greene, did subsequently move on to become Head of the Home Office Biometrics Centre of Expertise – you'd think he might have mentioned the problem.

Cast your mind back a slightly less olympic three years, to the publication of the report on the Home Office's biometrics trial. One of the Key Findings in the Management Summary is that "the enrolment success rate for disabled participants was much lower than the enrolment success rate for [able-bodied] participants". We must add the disabled to our list of exceptions.

Also, "participants with a learning disability and participants with a physical impairment had lower fingerprint success rates than other disabled participants and than [able-bodied] participants" (para. The potential for articles about new hurdles and fresh problems is growing.

Every government in the world seems to be spending money on biometrics at the moment. So be prepared to be shocked repeatedly when it turns out that the technology doesn't work – one of the other Key Findings was that the fingerprinting technology our ID cards are supposed to rely on fails about 20 percent of the time (para.

Obviously no-one is going to write an article suggesting that the government is wasting our money. But there are a few other surprises left.

For example, Mr Rejman-Greene suggested that the Home Office would need about 2,000 registration centres for ID cards (p.29) but, in the event, they have only set up 69 of them – it'll be the 2024 olympics before we all get an ID card at that rate. Will criminals and terrorists politely wait 16 years for this essential public safeguard to be up and running?

And don't get your hopes up about the other biometric the Home Office want to use, facial recognition. That doesn't work at all, Mr Rejman-Greene says, on p.15, twice.

We seem to have a case here where the government are embarked on a project which cannot possibly succeed and yet they will not cancel it. And in the process, they seem to be a lot more economical with the actualité than they are with our tax money. But that's not a big enough surprise any more to justify an article.

Unlike this. This really is surprising. It's not that hard to issue biometric ID cards. Pakistan, for example, had issued 60 million of them by 2005 (not that it helped poor Benazir Bhutto). With all the goading from Tony Blair and David Blunkett and Gordon Brown and Jacqui Smith, how come the Home Office haven't issued us all with cards yet? They won't work, we know that, but they could still have issued them.

There is only one explanation. There is a mole. Somewhere in the civil service, someone with real power, someone who can make things not happen, is putting the brakes on the ID cards scheme and has been for years. Whoever that person is – and they will no doubt wish to keep their identity secret – they are to be congratulated and thanked for their noble patriotism.

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