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Biometrics won't fix data loss problems

Academics attack government untruths on ID

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Six leading academics have written to a Parliamentary committee to express their dismay at the way biometrics has been used as a magic wand which would have supposedly stopped Darling's great data giveaway.

The six said of claims by the Prime Minister and his Chancellor: "These assertions are based on a fairy-tale view of the capabilities of the technology and in addition, only deal with one aspect of the problems that this type of data breach causes."

Both Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling claimed, after the loss of CDs containing 25m recipients of child benefit, that the data would somehow be protected by biometric information if we had national ID cards.

The letter points out that this is based on three suppositions - that the entire UK population can be enrolled on the database; that no one can forge biometric information; and finally that every ID check would include checks against biometric information on the national database.

The letter said:

Even if, in this fairy-tale land, it came to pass that (a) (b) and (c) were true after all (which we consider most unlikely), the proposed roll-out of the National Identity Scheme would mean that this level of 'protection' would not - on the Home Office's own highly optimistic projections - be extended to the entire population before the end of the next decade (i.e. 2020) at the earliest.

The academics also note that including biometric information on a national ID register would make such records even more valuable to fraudsters, and once compromised make "fixing" the problem even more difficult.

The inclusion of biometric data in one's NIR record would make such a record even more valuable to fraudsters and thieves as it would - if leaked or stolen - provide the 'key' to all uses of that individual's biometrics (e.g. accessing personal or business information on a laptop, biometric access to bank accounts, etc.) for the rest of his or her life. Once lost, it would be impossible to issue a person with new fingerprints. One cannot change one's fingers as one can a bank account.

The six academics also point out that leaking such personal data is not just a question of hassle for people but could be potentially fatal for "the directors of Huntingdon Life Sciences, victims of domestic violence or former Northern Ireland ministers".

The open letter, available here, was sent to Andrew Dismore MP, chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

The academics behind the letter include Professor Ross Anderson and Dr Richard Clayton of the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory, and Dr Ian Brown of the Oxford Internet Institute. Other signers include Dr Brian Gladman, formerly of the Ministry of Defence and NATO, Professor Angela Sasse of UCL's Department of Computer Science and Martyn Thomas CBE FREng. ®

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