The myths of the fingerprints

If the Conservative Party wants to scrap identity cards, it should also scrap or reduce plans to fingerprint passport applicants, argues SA Mathieson

As the general election neared, Conservative and LibDem opposition to identity cards made their future look doubtful. However, it was harder to see whether a new government would keep fingerprints for passports. In the event, the coalition scrapped them as well as ID cards.

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Powered by article titled “The myths of the fingerprints” was written by SA Mathieson, for on Friday 26th June 2009 15.29 UTC

Conservative Party leader David Cameron has made a big deal of his opposition to the national identity card. His latest intervention came in a speech on 26 June, when he declared “Today we are in danger of living in a control state” and warned that “soon we will be forced to surrender our fingerprints, eye scans and personal information to intrusive compulsory ID cards.”

He has made it clear that he plans to abolish identity cards, but has not publicly ditched the idea of requiring Britons to provide their fingerprints to the state at some time over the next decade. Anyone applying for a passport will have to provide all 10 fingerprints for the National Biometric Identity Store (NBIS), and the authorities will be able to use the record to identify people, whether to give them access to a service to which they are entitled or identify them as a criminal. This would leave us all at the mercy of an identification technology that still has significant weaknesses.

There is a major problem with people whose fingerprints are not distinct enough to be scanned – a Home Office research report warned last year that this is likely to affect the 4m people over 75, for example. The belief of some politicians that fingerprint biometrics represent some kind of magic identity bullet is a myth.

Then there is the question of fingerprints’ general reliability. There are two kinds of biometric check. The easier is to compare a person to stored measurements, such as a picture of their face or templates of their fingerprints, when they tell you who they are. This is what is starting to happen at borders.

It is far harder to identify someone who will not or cannot give a name from a database of biometrics – and it gets more difficult with every extra person on it. Biometric technology would have to be astonishingly accurate to look up someone by their fingerprints with any kind of reliability, and it’s not clear that it is. Iris scanning is thought to be better, but it was dropped from the identity scheme because of the costs.

In addition, fingerprints – and other biometrics – are becoming increasingly irrelevant to many public services. The government’s recent Digital Britain report talked about “digital switchover” for some transactions, and some are already migrating. For example, the majority of tax returns are now filed online, with identification done through the online Government Gateway, for which users have a password sent to them by post – without the use of an identity card or a biometric check.

Using biometrics online would be fraught with difficulties. Even if every computer had a fingerprint reader, it would not be possible to check that a user was not fooling this – academics have demonstrated ways of faking someone else’s prints. It would also be very hard to guard against electronic spoofing of prints on devices outside the government’s control.

Cost is another argument against a fingerprint database. IBM won the 10 year, £265m contract to run NBIS in April, but the full costs look likely to be much higher. In May, the Home Office said that identity cards will cost £1.31bn over the next decade, but an impact assessment released at the same time said that the National Identity Scheme will cost around £400m more each year, plus £300m in initial costs, compared with current passports – £4.3bn over the decade.

The £3bn difference over a decade is made up partly from the integration costs of the scheme to other parts of government, which are not in the Home Office figures, but also by the cost of fingerprints, the only significant difference between passports now and under the scheme. It’s not clear how much could be saved, but these figures indicate substantial sums.

An incoming Conservative government would be able to drop the fingerprints from passports if it wished. Britain is not party to the Schengen Agreement, which requires them, although it could face a problem in complying with the US Visa Waiver Scheme. It may be able to get around this by giving passport applicants – who will be paying directly to have their biometrics taken – the choice of whether to pay extra to add fingerprints to their passports, depending on whether they would like to avoid applying for a visa if they travel to America. However, as the US takes its own fingerprints at borders, it may not care either way.

Even if fingerprints on passports are retained for reasons of international compatibility, their use could be greatly scaled down. Instead of the 10 prints required for the NBIS, just two could be taken and the template placed on a passport’s microchip, with the government deleting the prints from its own records. Or it could scrap the plan to retain the images of fingerprints centrally, sticking just with the templates. Or it could go for a combination of the above.

If Cameron wants to prevent a Britain where officials can ask for “your papers please” – as he recently said, in a comic German accent – he might also be thoughtful about allowing one where they can, instead, try to identify you by scanning your fingers. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

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