Zero and hero

Why is that eBay page with that bloke wearing his wife’s wedding dress still near the top of Blogdex? He’s been there all week.

And no, I’m not going to link to that loser. Instead, I’m going to link to a genuinely worthy man, namely Ben Hammersley, who has put up his account of the Marathon Des Sables – a one-week, 240km run across the Sahara Desert, which he completed with a broken ankle. We are not worthy. An astonishing account of endurance and of the spirit and camaraderie of all who took part.

Right, it’s Friday and it’s 5.30. I’m off to the Eagle to leverage short-term value-added empowerment.

Some questions about ID cards

So the ID Cards Draft Bill has been released. I have multiple concerns, but I’ll boil them to as few as possible. The Home Office ID Card Site says that an ID card system will help fight terrorism, identity-related fraud, illegal working and public service abuse. I’m going to voice my (very condensed) thoughts on each of those, and tack a couple more on the end.

1. In what way will a national ID card system reduce the threat of terrorism? Terrorists tend to use tourist visas (which will be checked with less stringent verification under the new legislation), or they are people with genuine ID with no previous history of terrorist activity (in which case knowing their identity is of no use). Most of the 9/11 hijackers were unknowns, and many had legitimate ID papers. Neither the draft bill nor the consultation document mention any study detailing evidence where a national ID card had a definite effect on reducing terrorist activity. A draft report by Privacy International disputes the Government’s anti-terrorism claims. Wouldn’t the money on ID cards be better spent on proven methods like better intelligence and policing?

2. The Home Office claim that identity fraud costs the nation £1.3bn a year. However the document estimating this is based largely on guesswork (see Annex B) and most of this estimated cost is borne by the private sector. And out of this cost, a large proportion of this figure (£370m) is due to stolen and lost credit cards, but these are forms of fraud which an ID card system could not necessarily prevent. The amount of ID-related insurance fraud (£250m) is taken as an estimated 50% of an estimated 50% of all insurance fraud – these figures seem to have been plucked out of the air. Furthermore, there is no differentiation between identity fraud due to deficiencies in current systems of identification, and fraud thanks to incompetence or negligence by the parties involved in verifying the ID, and thus we don’t know exactly how much of the estimated fraud will be stopped with a new national identity card. The cost of such a scehem is at least £3bn and possibly a lot more (see later) – are the savings on ID fraud worth it?

3. Illegal workers are beneath the system as it is, they have no National Insurance number or anything like that. If their employers are willing to employ an illegal without an NI number, then they are not going to worry about someone without a valid ID card.

4. As pointed out in (2) above, there are no concrete figures for the scale of public service abuse. Most claims of “health tourism” and the like by ineligible people are based on anecdotal evidence. Nobody knows what the cost is, as the Department of Health has admitted. How can a sensible cost and benefit analysis of the ID scheme be carried out if we don’t know how much it’s meant to save?

5. How are the Government going to guarantee the security of the new National Identity Register? This will be built from scratch and supposedly will not be tainted by the bad data on existing, compromised systems. But either we will be using our passports and birth certificates as proof of ID to get the new cards, in which case compromised data is bound to be introduced, or the NIR will have to fully verify the identity of every single one of the 60 million people in the UK.

6. The biometric verification systens proposed are taken as 100% foolproof and a major component in ensuring the security of the system. However, fingerprints can be convincingly faked (and there has been little rigorous scientific scrutiny on whether actually are unique), and face recognition is still very unreliable. Only iris scans come out with any integrity, but these are expensive and intrusive, and have not been proven as practical on a wide scale yet.

7. The latest estimate of the cost of this project is £3 billion. Recent Government projects on assembling databases of people’s identities, such as the Criminal Records Bureau and Passport Agency have been costly, late and don’t even work properly. In fact many other Government IT projects could be described as having been similarly botched. With so much at stake here – a very secure register of every citizen in the country, how has the Government changed its practices (if at all) to take into account the lessons of past failures?

Right, no more. In very short summary, I don’t believe it will be totally secure, the marginal benefits will outweight the costs, and I expect them to escalate. And I haven’t even started on the erosion of civil liberties. But I’ll stop writing, else I’ll be here all night. All thoughts welcome.

New Iraqi Flag

New Iraqi Flag

It’s quite ugly, isn’t it? Most vexillologists agree. But that’s the least of the new flag’s problems. It doesn’t contain any green (the colour most associated with Islam) nor any red (which is associated with the Arabs). While the Kurds get a yellow stripe to represent them, the Arabs and Turkomens don’t get anything. What has alienated the Iraqis most is that it looks a bit too much like the Israeli flag. While the old flag is perhaps too interlinked with the old Ba’athist regime to be used in the future, they surely could come up with something better than this?

Random, related link – a nifty Flash flag finder, which will work out what country a particularly patterned flag belongs to.