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In the last ten days we have learnt that “persons unknown” stole the identity of British citizens and cloned modern UK passports to enter Dubai to perform an assassination.

Last week, the Foreign Secretary got up in the House of Commons to say that his legal action before the Court of Appeal was to protect intelligence vital to national security given to the UK by the USA’s national security agencies.

There are obvious data protection consequences that flow from these events that are not being picked up by journalists as part of the current public discourse.

In relation to biometric passports, the official Government information states that all passports now issued contain ‘biometric’ details "which are unique to you – like your fingerprint, the iris of your eye, and your facial features”. In addition, “the chip inside the passport contains information about the holder’s face – such as the distances between eyes, nose, mouth and ears” which “can then be used to identify the passport-holder”.

Also the chip is protected in four ways:

* A ‘digital signature’, which shows that the data is genuine and which country has issued the passport

* Basic Access Control, a ‘chip protocol’ that prevents the data being read without the passport holder’s knowledge

* Public Key Infrastructure (PKI), a digital technique that confirms the data on the chip was written by IPS and has not been changed

* The chips can only be read at a few centimetres’ distance from a chip reader – so they cannot be accidentally read

So, by implication, either “persons unknown” using the UK Passports in Dubai managed to evade some of the above security checks (including any biometric security) or airport security arrangements at a major international airport has suffered a complete failure. Which one is most culpable? It is a very important question.

For instance, if some or all of the biometric features that protect the Passport have been “overcome”, where does this leave the biometric security on the ID Card? If one agency can get round the security, isn’t it rather obvious that others can also do so? Does every significant ID Card check now need a reference to personal data stored on the National Identity Register (and recorded on that infamous audit trail) as the means of making sure an ID Card is not a clone? If so, then the ID Card costs have just increased significantly.

In relation to the intelligence issue, I accept that there are immense difficulties. However, if we start from the position that intelligence is information from which one can deduce or infer a possible action, then the position becomes clearer. For example, if “X has been in contact with Y” then it might be important to put “Y” on a watch list.

However, I do not think that “X has been water-boarded” qualifies as intelligence – it is a description of what has happened to X. It might be confidential to qualify the intelligence by explaining that “intelligence from X has been gained under torture”, but there again, it is the information that is provided that is the “intelligence” and not the means by which it was extracted from the informant.

In other words, the Foreign Secretary’s claim that “The seven paragraphs contain summaries of American intelligence relating to Mr Mohamed’s case held in UK files” cannot possibly be substantiated by the facts. One cannot possibly undermine the principle of protecting intelligence sharing if the information itself does not qualify as intelligence (in this case, it relates to inhuman or degrading treatment).

Bootnote

In my evidence to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, published in 2006, I explore national security in the context of Parliamentary scrutiny, data protection, human rights and terrorism. I explain why the UK system of scrutiny desperately needs an overhaul (http://www.amberhawk.com/policydoc.asp).

This story originally appeared at HAWKTALK, the blog of privacy data protection consultancy Amberhawk Training Ltd.

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