ID cards: a guide for technically-challenged PMs

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Do not worship false identities

Overall in the UK, however, we're sitting comparatively pretty. Our issuing authorities are honest and reasonably efficient, so we can be reasonably confident that the bearer is who the document says they are. This is not the case elsewhere. In the home of the war on terror, the drivers licence is used as a form of universal identity card, has historically been obtainable under assumed names with ease, and has therefore (well after 9/11) therefore provided a ready basis for the creation of false identity. A massive and immediate tightening up of the issuing systems in the US would simply choke off one major source of new false identity, while the elimination of existing ones would be a far more daunting task.

You can, slowly reduce, maybe almost eliminate, false identity in the developed world, but what of the rest? There are plenty countries whose documents, because of fraud, incompetence, inadequate systems or plain old political collapse, you would reasonably suspect. But in between the documents you're fairly sure of and the documents you're reasonably sceptical of you have a fairly large area that will surely be targeted by the sensible terrorist in search of false identity. If one can bribe an issuing officer in a country whose passports nevertheless provide a reasonably high level of confidence (a close ally of the United States would be good), then who needs to mess around with forgeries?

So, back at the desk with the passport and the finger, we can be reasonably sure that a local check will be sufficient in the case of quite a number of documents we're fairly sure we can rely on, but not in the case of large numbers of other documents, which are those most likely to be carried by the people we would like to suspect - illegal immigrants, drug smugglers, terrorists - if we had the means to suspect them. So we need to check more.

I know, let's do the show online!

As the US, with the enthusiastic support of Europe, is to all intents and purposes compelling the world to adopt biometrics as the ID standard, we will have an ever-growing, ever more global, database first of fingerprints, then of faceprints. 60 million for the UK, say 300 million plus for the US (they're already collecting), 4-500 million for Europe, and so it goes on. The arrival of modern standards of biometrics in passports will result in the production of matching (perhaps...) databases in the countries of the issuing authorities, and in an increasing exchange of these databases between countries.

The challenges here are obvious, and the data you're most likely to want to run an online check on (we've already established we'll trust most UK ID) is precisely the data you're going to be least sure of, and have most trouble in keeping up to date. You're not just going to have to check that a usually static data combination of biometrics and name/ID is valid, but all sorts of other stuff as well.

Do the biometrics associated with the ID you're currently checking also apply to a previously used, different, ID? You can only be confident that they don't if you're prepared to crunch through the lot looking for duplicates. Also, you are going to need to be sure that matters that should be associated with the ID (outstanding warrants, recent atrocities, the deep suspicions of the CIA or the Humberside police) have been. So you're really talking about pouring vast amounts of data from many diverse (and unreliable) sources into the global database very, very frequently.

That's clearly a Big Brother nightmare, but it probably needs worrying about more on the grounds of the amount of money we're going to spend on it than because it's actually going to work. The problem for the authorities here, however is that they're going to have to try to make it work if it is going to deliver what they say it's going to deliver. If you do not check for duplicates, for example, then the system is not going to tell you that Fred Bloggs of Solihull is in fact Osama bin Laden. A silly example? Yes and no - obviously, it is not very likely that our current entry systems are going to let someone called Fred Bloggs walk through when they look strangely like Osama bin Laden. However, if he checks out as Fred Bloggs, UK citizen, with no record under our future automated systems, then general appearance is rather less likely to be challenged, or even noticed. So the assumed reliability of the systems could actually increase the security of fugitives in the event of their having successfully obtained clean, genuine ID.

If you take a rational and realistic view of the current capabilities of the technology, and of what it will be capable of in the foreseeable future, then you'll realise that in almost all cases the system will default to the local check, and we'll be running on the current procedures (visual, customs officer's suspicions, watch-lists) to determine when further checking is required. This realistic view is however not necessarily shared by the people commissioning the systems. Some months back Fiona McTaggart, a Home Office Minister (at time of writing anyway) wrote in a self-exculpatory piece in The Guardian that in the future we wouldn't actually need passports and documentation.

Which is absolutely true, if you're checking biometrics against a central database every time, for every individual, whenever identification is required. Under these circumstances documentation, plastic, even clothing is entirely unnecessary, because you are your identity. Fiona did not say at what point in the future this scenario would be technically achievable, but it's all too likely that the Home Office thinks it's a lot closer than it really is, and that it will be developing accordingly.

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