Clean water

by David Moss

May 2009


Many government initiatives – notably the ID cards scheme – depend for their success on the reliability of certain mass consumer biometrics. Ministers and officials suggest that these biometrics are reliable. The field trials conducted suggest the opposite. Are they reliable or aren’t they? What are we to believe? WIBBI* official statistics were collated by the Office for National Statistics?

The National Identity Scheme depends for its success on certain biometrics, particularly flat print fingerprints and facial geometry.

To a material extent, the eBorders scheme depends for its success on the reliability of the same biometrics, plus irisprints.

To a lesser extent, so does the transformational government initiative.

If these biometrics aren’t reliable, then there is no reason to believe that the National Identity Scheme will be any more successful in achieving its objectives than any of the other schemes we already have. eBorders will be seriously dented. And transformational government will lose one of its supports.

So, are they reliable?

It is easy to find sales literature which says that these biometrics are reliable. It is hard to find any large-scale field trials which demonstrate that they are.

In fact, it is easy to find trials which suggest that the chosen biometrics are hopelessly unreliable.

There is no certainty. The National Identity Scheme and its cousins are proceeding on the basis of hope, wishful thinking, hearsay and sales talk. That is irresponsible, unbusinesslike, unscientific and illogical.

WIBBI* the National Identity Scheme proceeded only on the basis of official statistics. I.e. statistics which have been checked and passed by the Office for National Statistics?

As things stand, when the Home Secretary says that her chosen biometrics will link us securely to a single identity, there is no evidence supporting that claim. None whatever. And when she says that these biometrics will allow the authorities to check that each person has one identity and one identity only, that it will be impossible to maintain multiple identities, there is no evidence for that either. She is quite simply misleading people when she makes these assertions. (She has probably been misled herself, otherwise why would she make them?)

The use of biometrics in national systems has become a murky area. Officials don’t answer letters. (They don’t even acknowledge receipt.) No-one makes the case in favour. House of Commons select committees are ignored. Academics are ignored.

This makes our politicians and their officials seem undignified, fly-by-night, suspicious, louche, furtive, shifty, sly, guilty, tongue-tied, nervous, mendacious, duplicitous, deceitful, untrustworthy and generally sleazy, pinguid and ashamed or honteux, as the French have it, as though they have something to hide. Jacqui Smith. Meg Hillier. Sir David Normington. Twice. James Hall. Lin Homer. Liam Byrne. And Sir David Varney, the man whose religious belief is that the National Identity Register will be the ”single source of truth”.

This is no way for adults to behave. It can’t go on like this. And it doesn’t have to. Let the Office for National Statistics do its job. Get the UK Statistics Authority involved.


This is why:

Concern about declining public trust in government in general – and official statistics in particular – led ministers, with all-party support, to set up an independent watchdog in the UK Statistics Authority [chaired by Sir Michael Scholar], with a tough new code of practice for all public bodies producing any kind of official figures ...

“One of the reasons I took this job is that having good statistics is like having clean water and clean air. It’s the fundamental material that we depend on for an honest political debate”, [says Sir Michael] ...

One innovation is a national statistics publication hub website, on which all the new statistical releases are posted every day. “For the first time it completely separates the statistics from comment on them ...

The new rule that data cannot be released to the media or ministers more than 24 hours before publication is also having an effect ...

Does what is perceived as the selective release of the most favourable figures into friendly ears contribute to public distrust?

“I think it does,” Sir Michael replies. “I personally think it’s a form of corruption” ...

“… what should happen is that political debate takes place on the basis of a clean set of statistics, produced without political interference by professionals who have a clear set of values as regards the integrity, objectivity and impartiality of what they are doing” ...

The Identity & Passport Service have not made the case for the National Identity Scheme. The UK Border Agency have not made the case for eBorders. The Cabinet Office have not made the case for that part of transformational government which depends on reliable biometrics.

None of these schemes should be allowed to proceed, it is suggested, unless and until official statistics making the case are available.


* wouldn't it be better if

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