When the news about the lost disc with 25 million child benefit records initially broke one of my first and instant reactions was that the incident, far from brining ID cards into question would actually be used as a justification for them. This didn't take long to happen and today the former Home Secretary David Blunkett has written to the Times arguing the case in a letter riddled with fallacy and flawed analysis.
The first problem comes when he says that those using the loss of data to argue against ID cards is a "diversion by those who have never wanted ID cards anyway, and who do not appear to have ever understood them". Wrong. The diversion Mr Blunkett is your attempt to dismiss their argument by playing the associative circumstantial man rather than the ball.
Whether someone has always been against ID cards or not is irrelevant when assessing the validity of their argument. Suggesting so is intellectually bankrupt. However it is when we get to his actual "argument" where it all falls apart for Blunkett. He says,
"The database is simply about identity — not about the plethora of information that already rests elsewhere. It will actually make it easier to protect your identity, including in circumstances such as these where information has gone missing. This is because it gives an absolutely robust form of identification that stops other people being able to pretend that they are you, simply because they’ve got hold of some of your personal details. It will allow a proper check to be made between your own biometric and that held on the database, giving greater protection"Dear Lord! There are least two glaring problems with this argument. Firstly there is the false demarcation being made between ID cards and the HMRC issue on the basis of the content of the database. They are not separate issues at all, because at the core of the HMRC issue (and the core of the ID database) is the weakest point of any system, the user.
The ID database remains a simple database that has human beings entering data on to it. Errors in entry do and will occur as they do with any large-scale system. Data corruption and the consequent data cleansing required are standard operating practices of managing such information systems that contain millions of records.
The point to stress here is what happens to someone's "identity" when data corruption occurs because of entry mistakes? Maintenance mistakes? Hardware failure and subsequent recovery of data? Network outages that mean querying is not possible? Or simply stupid people making stupid requests? Remember that if your biometric data is exposed you cannot apply for a new set.
What happens when you discover that your identity is not protected on the database because as far as the database is concerned - due to cock-up, not conspiracy - you either don't exist or it says you are someone else? What happens when you go to the bank and they say "sorry Sir, you are trying to commit fraud, the Government says you’re lying we’re calling the Police"?
Blunkett's argument here is essentially predicated on the notion that database integrity is 100% guaranteed and that not enough people understand this, he willfuklly ignores the human factor in his consideration. Mr Blunkett, you won't find a DBA or SysAdmin in the world worth their salt that will give you a 100% integrity guarantee on a system. The potentiality of 'garbage in garbage out' alone is enough to ensure that without even considering the other practical realities of administering such things.
The second, and frankly unbelievable claim that Blunkett has made is his use of the phrase "absolutey robust" in relation to biometrics. Absolutely robust? Those are very bold words given the last point made about managing data integrity, but worse still they perfectly illustrate why it is not those arguing against ID cards who don't "understand" but rather the former Home Secretary and his ilk.
The argument is based upon the assumption that biometric data is impossible to workaround forever and ever in the world, the universe and time. Biometric data, for Blunkett, is impervious to fraud. It is impossible to pretend to be someone else ever because of this. This is not just nonsense; it is, to coin Bentham, "nonsense on stilts".
Personally I’m not quite sure if the assumption is dangerous or stupid in equal measure. The notion that because something is considered not possible now it will ultimately remain so is utterly bizarre. That's a bit like a SysAdmin saying "it's impossible to hack my server". It is very simple, nothing that is devised by man cannot equally be worked around by another man who desires to do so.
Whilst it may be science fiction one only has to see the film Gattaca to realise that in a world where biometrics are everything, people will find simple, and frankly elegant ways of getting around the system. Let us not forget that biometric passports have already been hacked. You don't need to fake biometrics to get around the current biometric systems, and when the time comes and someone wants to enough, they will.
Given all the above, I'm not really sure I can pass much more comment on Blunkett's closing words which says,
"That so few people understand this is the problem that government faces in persuading people that such a system will be better then any other, precisely because it will be robust, efficient and verifiable."Actually I lied, I can pass comment. Mr Blunkett, it is not those arguing against ID cards (for which there are clearly strong political argument too about autonomy of one’s own information) that do not understand the problem. It is you. Basically you're talking bollocks.