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ID Cards

As yesterday's post on voting received a number of comments on ID cards, this has got me thinking about the planned scheme.

In today's world we quite regularly need to prove who we are and generally the suggested forms of ID to use for this are Passports and Driving Licences. However, not everyone has these, so you could not use them for things such as proving your identity when you vote. As such having an ID card seems a sensible idea in principle.

As far as I can see, the simplest way of doing this would be to put the passport page with all your details on into a card form. You could then use this to prove your identity in situations, such as collecting parcels, where you might currently use your passport. The security issues would be unchanged.

However, the government's proposed scheme does seem a bit more complicated than this and it's proving very difficult to find out exactly what's involved from independent sources without getting drowned in media hype.

The Home Office's own Identity and Passport Services site does give a broad overview of what's planned and in general sounds fairly reasonable. However, it's obviously not going to be unbiased and will be spun to make it sound as reasonable as possible.

A quick google search throws up several sites against ID cards, mainly along the same lines as the one for No2ID. Any valid points on that site are completely lost in hype with little evidence to back it up. Even there "leaked documents" don't actually say a huge amount to back up what they are trying to say and there annotations are frankly unhelpful.

The Conservative and Lib Dem websites both give details of the drawbacks to the scheme. From this the major drawbacks seem to be the cost and the aims of the scheme. ID cards won't work to stop terrorism, etc, but could be quite useful when we need to prove who we are in day to day life (such as when opening a bank account, picking up a parcel and ideally when voting).

Then there's the issues regarding the database. I personally don't see any issue with the government putting my name, address, etc in a database as they probably already store this data in countless databases as it is. They shouldn't put sensitive personal data in there, but there site says they won't. It would seem reasonable to use the identity number from this in other databases to help services look up my details as long as these were kept as separate databases. If someone wanted all my details they would still need to access all these various databases to get it. If someone hacked in to these databases they could get all my sensitive data without the identity number without too much hassle, so I can't see that it makes a huge difference there.

The main issue then appears to be the fact it holds information about when you use the card. Does it need to? If you scrapped this point then the database would seem fairly reasonable again.

Cost of course is the other issue. The governments site doesn't seem clear how this is going to be funded. Personally, I think the funding should come through taxes rather than requiring individuals to pay for their own identity cards. The governments site says that individuals will pay for their own cards, but the cost will be kept down to £30 or less, which is not ideal. The conservatives and lib dems both come up with figures of £93 including passports, but it's not clear how old these sites are.

I suspect the Conservative and Lib Dem sites are both from the last election which makes them both fairly dated given the number of changes to the scheme there appears to have been.

The articles in the media suffer the same fate, as many older articles reflect previous ideas of what should be included in the scheme.

The most recent article a search on the BBC site was this Q&A, which although it seems a good overview, seems to contract the details of the NIR given on the governments site by saying the details will not be held in a central database, so now I'm utterly confused what the actual situation is.

For all the information out there on the cards, there seems to be a complete lack of information and it's all very confusing. Can't someone just say, this is the proposed ID cards scheme, this is what the proposed register will hold, etc without covering it in hype and spin?


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
2nd May, 2008 08:58 (UTC)
Whilst in theory I don't have a problem with ID cards, I do have concerns over Data security after they managed to lose a disc with the details of those in receipt of child benefit- including dates of birth and bank details.
Dave Holland [org.uk]
2nd May, 2008 09:34 (UTC)
Can't someone just say, this is the proposed ID cards scheme, this is what the proposed register will hold, etc without covering it in hype and spin?

No, they can't (they're politicians, remember) and this is why there's such opposition.

(Oh, that and the cost, and the privacy implications, and the data security shambles which would likely ensure, and...)
2nd May, 2008 11:33 (UTC)
I'm not sure exactly what the current proposals are, but then I think that's partly because they keep changing as people point out that they're impractical, impossible, unsafe or expensive.

So to rant on the subject without actually answering your question: :-)

The first question is: why is it a good idea?

Having a standard document to prove who you are is a good idea in some circumstances. They're fairly limited, though... hiring a car, opening a bank account and flying are the ones that spring to mind. Oh, and proof of address for picking up parcels at the post office.

A driving licence does most of those, and a passport does all of them. They have the advantages that the former is useful in other ways when hiring a car, and a passport is accepted abroad too. The disadvantage... well, not everyone has passed their driving test.

So what would an ID card add?

The answer tends to be that it would have biometrics added which prove that you're the person on the card. Of course anything with a photo does that, but the idea of fingerprints and eye scans is that they're foolproof. Do a national register of everyone's prints and iris patterns and you can prove who everyone is.

The thing is, though, that if all the data is in the register then you don't need a card. I could put my finger on the reader, and it would say "King Pellinor", and the physical card isn't required. If you don't have a reader, of course, then you'd need a card - but the biometrics are useless and the card is exactly as good as a photocard.

That assumes that fingerprints can't be duplicated, of course. A German magazine recently obtained a copy of the Interior Minister's fingerprints and printed them on thin flexible rubber suitable for dicreetly attaching to the end of a finger. Someone else has demonstrated a way of picking up fingerprints with stuff made from gummy bears that fools readers most of the time.

So the register is actually quite easy to fool. You could show the card, the official could say "that doesn't look like you", you put your finger on the reader, it shows a green light, and they say "Oh, you must have had your hair cut". If the biometrics are portrayed as foolproof, then if you can fool them you're in the money.

There's also no solution to what happens if the system isn't working. You present your ID card, the reader doesn't work, what does the official do? He waves you on through, that's what, because if he doesn't then a fuss is made and he gets blamed. Or he is forced to tell you to come back when the system's working, which is a hassle for both of you.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the readers aren't reliable. If it comes up negative, there's a good chance it's because you did a lot of gardening yesterday and you fingers are all roughened up. Again, you then have to abort the transaction, or else open up a loophole for people to ignore it.

Alternatively, of course, you fry the chip in your (stolen?) card by putting it in the microwave. The reader fails, inexplicably. The clerk is then faced with you saying it's your card but you've had a haircut, no way to verify things by biometrics, everything else looks in order... oh look, this is exactly the same dilemma as you get now with a photo ID and the biometrics do nothing to resolve it.

So what an ID card adds is: if it works it does so in exactly the same way as a photocard; if it doesn't work, it either adds nothing or else it causes problems.

Which comes down to: it adds nothing but problems.

2nd May, 2008 11:33 (UTC)

What are the problems?

The NIR is a big security concern. As you say, at the moment there are lots of databases which don't tie up, so there is actually a lot of information about you around the place. This is a bit awkward, and causes problems in some circumstances. Things get a lot more efficient if you can tie them all together with a common identity number, for example. The problem is that easy access for official purposes means easy access for unofficial ones: once you get in, you have lots of information now available to you. It also means there are more points of entry. Think of it as a physical thing: you can have lots of small warehouses, each with a few doors and a few people with keys, or one big one with lots of doors, some in obscure places, and lots of people with keys. Which is more secure? Or to turn it around, which provides the better opportunity for theft?

The other question there is whether certain bits of data need to be linked. Should my driving licence details connect to the addresses of my children's schools and a note of which bank my mortgage is with? Why would that ever be useful, officially? Putting them in the same box with the same key can only benefit criminals. There's a balance to be struck between the usefulness of linking data and the risk of doing so, but at present the position to be adopted is "Link it all! It'll be great!", which is not a terribly sophisticated answer.

You have to bear in mind that the Government (not just this one, but since computers came along) has a tremendously bad reputation for IT projects. They regularly fail to work, and get abused. Bland assurances that it will work and will be secure are not very believable.

Cost: the price of a card is generally quoted as being very low, and the rest of the system will be "self-financing". What that actually means is that the cost is to be decentralised. The cost of fingerprint readers will be borne by the entities that need to use them (other Government offices, local councils, banks, etc), which just means that the actual cost gets passed on to the taxpayer by another route.

So yes, you could do it. But no-one has demonstrated the benefits to be significant, but plenty of people have demonstrated significant risks. Fundamentally, it's a solution looking for a problem, but stacking up all sorts of problems along the way.

A specific example of that sort of thing: a solution which could be used for reading cards is to put RFID chips in, so they can be read remotely. The problem is that it means baddies might read the chip remotely (it can be done from several metres away). The officially suggested solution is firstly to reduce the power of the chip, so it can only be read a few inches away, and to put the card in a foil wallet so it can only be read when you open the wallet. So to get the benefit of the RFID chip you need to hand the card to the person checking it, they need to open it, and then they need to wave it close to the reader. This is rather more complicated than scanning a bar code in, and much less secure. But because it's a high-tech solution it's being seriously proposed, even though it's actually less sensible than the lower-tech solution. Biometric cards are being proposed simply because they're possible, not because they're useful.

Oh, and because people don't like to U-turn. If you suggest something you must stick with it even if it's stupid. Just look at The Apprentice - you get people doing stupid things, then when challenged on the basis that 3 industry experts all said it was stupid they reply "I had full confidence in the plan, Sir Alan, and I still think it was an excellent idea". But it was an obvious disaster, and experts have told you so! How can you still say it was a good idea? The only reason I can think of for that kind of behaviour is that a lot of people think that being resolute is always a virtue. Sometimes, yes... always, not by a long chalk.
2nd May, 2008 11:34 (UTC)

The last point is privacy. The point is that you can prove who you are with it. The problem is that you might be forced to do so more than you currently do, just because you can. If the need to show ID proliferates then you have to carry it with you all the time, which makes it easier to lose. From a risk perspective, people will feel they have to require ID just to show a facade of due diligence, even though identity is irrelevant to the transaction.

It also devalues the check - for example, in the US they ask for ID routinely when you pay by credit card. Not knowing this at the time, I once tried to pay with a card and the cashier asked for ID. I didn't have any, so Evilmissbecky showed him her driving licence. That was fine: he'd got a card, and he'd seen ID, so he rang up the sale- even though the card was in the name of and proffered by a man, and the ID was in the name of a woman and had her photo on! The rote performance of a check designed to increase security meant that actually no benefit was achieved - but if Evilmissbecky hadn't been there, then this useless check would have prevented the sale. I can quite happily see people ignoring hiccups in the ID process if they have to do it 200 times a day.

Sorry for doing a comment so long it needed to be split into 3 :-) I didn't even know there was a character limit :-D
3rd May, 2008 11:05 (UTC)
In response to your last statemenet, I think the answer is "no".

And considering this government's record of losing discs and stuff containing sensitive personal data, I don't trust them with the ID card thing, I'm afraid.
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )

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