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Auntie Beeb's amazing, evolving, ID card stories

Rewriting history as it happens...

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On the 6th of November the BBC announced to an astonished world that "People 'can't wait for ID cards'. Breathlessly repeating the words of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith's speech that morning, Auntie reported: "I believe there is a demand, now, for cards - and as I go round the country I regularly have people coming up to me and saying they don't want to wait that long."

And added that the market for fingerprints, photographs and signatures* garnered in post offices and retailers would amount, according to Smith, to "about £200 million a year." The Beeb neglected to mention that the £200 million a year represented a laundered price hike of up to £40 a throw, but there are a few other things the Beeb neglected to mention - or more properly, stopped mentioning - that day, too.

The report's revision history, documented by News Sniffer, takes us on an impressive Odyssey from "Smith to unveil airport ID scheme", through "Shops may take ID Card biometrics" to the final sales-pitch version, cunningly deniabled with quote marks.

Version one was, obviously, a holding piece posted in the early hours, but it included a mild observation from BBC home affairs hack Rory McLean that the plans for airport ID cards "would appear to be a step back from the original plan." It wasn't much compared to what the rest of the press was writing that day, but perhaps it's what you'd call critical analysis at the post-Gilligan BBC.

Some opposing comment from No2ID national coordinator Phil Booth was added around 8.30am, then it remained relatively stable until the fourth version (they start at zero, so that's "Version 3") at 11am. Out went Rory, in came the retail angle ("Supermarkets could be asked to take people's fingerprints as part of the government's identity card scheme") and in came Jacqui denying the airport scheme was a retreat.

And a Home Office spokesman insisting that the trial isn't a "pilot", because they're still going to tag all of the airport workers afterwards anyway whatever the outcome, while the Identity & Passport Service "would continue to carry out enrolment at its offices" alongside the new retail partners (an IPS prospectus published on the same day indicates that the majority of enrolments will be carried out by the retail sector).

Then stability reigns, more or less, until 16.02, when Jacqui's imaginary army of ID Card fans takes the lead slot. The airside workers' plight has now been seriously downgraded by the Home Secretary's sales pitch, and apparently it's "more convenient" and "cheaper" to bin the network of IPS enrolment centres in favour of the private sector. Still no mention of it being more on the price of a card, though, and no mention of binning the centres being a u-turn, either.

Throughout the process, special notice should be taken of the deft use of crossheads. Version one lobbed in "Voluntary System" (no deniability quote marks there...) on the basis that "from 2010 a voluntary system for other people will come into effect." These other people are the people who will turn into Jacqui's imaginary army later that day, and the crosshead persists (some kind of bid for subliminal balance?) for several versions after the one where the relevant text is cut (fourth impression, Version 3). Data Security (no quotes, again) makes a comforting appearance for several mid-period versions, too, then is bumped in the stampede for ID cards version by 'Trusted Environment', with quote marks.

The final - at time of writing, anyway - version isn't an entirely uncritical commercial for ID cards, containing as it does (balance, balance...) comment from Phil Booth and the two main opposition parties. But if we're talking about developing stories in the wonderful world of Web 2.0 reportage here, what one must assume represents a day's ferreting by the Beeb's finest (or a day's being shouted at by Home Office spin doctors) does look very much like a fail.

Rather than following the classic (and largely imaginary) internet news script of developing one story as it breaks, adding detail and analysis until finally (but of course there is no 'final' in Web 2.0 hackery) you're left with a worthwhile and incisive report, the BBC lurches madly from one story to another, first dumping the airport worker line in favour of the supermarket hook, then finally settling on the deranged claims of one madwoman as being what the story was really about. Superficial in three different ways on a single URL in one day - suppose you could call that an achievement. (Thanks to Marcus for pointing us at this one) ®

* Yes, we wondered about that too.

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