Thursday, December 30, 2004

Tsunami death toll reported at over 120,000

Reuters have reported the latest death toll figures for the Tsunami:

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia (Reuters) - The death toll in the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster has soared above 120,000 as millions scramble for food and fresh water and thousands more flee in panic to high ground on rumours of new waves.

Aid agencies warned on Thursday that many more, from Indonesia to Sri Lanka, could die in epidemics if shattered communications and transport hampered what may prove history's biggest relief operation.

Rescue workers pressed on into isolated villages shattered by a disaster that could yet eclipse a cyclone that struck Bangladesh in 1991, killing 138,000 people.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi called for an emergency meeting of the Group of Eight so that the rich nations club could discuss aid and possible debt reduction following "the worst cataclysm of the modern era".

The total toll had shot up more than 50 percent in a day with still no clear picture of conditions in some isolated islands and villages around India and Indonesia.

So it seems the death toll will probably rise even further. Serious questions must be asked as to whether and how the death toll could have been avoided via e.g. an early warning system. In the meantime the aid efforts continue.

Concerned British readers are directed to the Disasters Emergency Committee for making donations, in addition to the organisations I referred to in an earlier article.

BT reported to have doubts over bidding for ID cards contracts...

The Register reports that British Telecom is having doubts over whether to apply for ID card related contracts:

British Telecom may not bid for ID card contracts because of concern that its involvement would make it seem like a 'Big Brother' company in the eyes of the public. According to This is London, BT has been talking to consultants and public bodies, including Liberty, in order to gauge how close involvement with the ID scheme would be perceived.
Later the article suggests a further reason why BT might have doubts:
BT is currently claiming that it hasn't yet decided whether or not to bid, but any hesitation may not stem entirely from the Big Brother factor. The company is already involved in the the NHS National Programme for IT, and it might view that as enough headaches for the moment. Nor are large UK Government IT contracts viewed by industry with undiluted enthusiasm these days. Bad planning and moving goalposts can make project failure a near certainty, and it's generally the contractor that ends up being blamed. Add the Government's determination to push down prices to this and you might reckon winning a UK Government contract boiled down to very publicly trashing your own reputation while tearing up five pound notes.
Will the ID card scheme end up as a government white elephant?

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Asia earthquake

With a death toll now reported at over 50,000, the Asia earthquake and it's accompanying tsunami must surely count as one of the worst disasters in human history. It is a reminder that for all our technological prowess, nature is still a force to be reckoned with.

I hope that this incident spurs the development of early warning systems for tsunamis so that in future the awful death toll we've seen with this quake can be averted.

For the moment though, sending aid is the best we can do, a list of British charities involved in the effort can be found here.

Friday, December 24, 2004

Churchill on Xmas (circa 1941)

The Auroran Sunset quotes Churchill on Xmas:

quote of the day: something christmasy from churchill
Let the children have their night of fun and laughter. Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play. Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.
And so, in God's mercy, a happy Christmas to you all."

--winston churchill, dec. 24th, 1941
Sentiments which I can only echo.

Season's Greetings!

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 23, 2004

The govt's hostility to Freedom of Information shows again

The BBC is reporting that civil servants have stepped up the shredding of official documents, ahead of the Freedom of Information Act coming into force:

From a series of parliamentary answers Dr Julian Lewis, the Conservative spokesman for the Cabinet Office, says he has discovered a huge acceleration in shredding.

The Department of Work and Pensions destroyed nearly 37,000 files last year - up 22,000 on four years ago when the Act was passed.

The number of files destroyed by the Ministry of Defence and the departments of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Trade and Industry has also risen dramatically.

Dr Lewis has called for an investigation by the information commissioner Richard Thomas

This follows on from the recent reports that the govt has ordered internal emails more than 3 months old to be deleted.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Michael Howard on ID cards & further ID related links

I was going to do a critique of Michael Howard's piece on ID cards in the Telegraph.However, Stephen Robinson writing in the Telegraph, has done such a good job I decided it better to refer people to it instead:

If you like the idea of all this and can afford the £400 or so it will cost your extended family (the Tories could have said), then vote Labour and help Charles Clarke, the new Home Secretary, get one over all those he accuses of "liberal woolly thinking". On the other hand, if you are sceptical of grandiose government in general, and of ID cards in particular, the Tories might have said, then vote for us.

Mr Howard might have added that he would take the billions that Labour will spend on this scheme, and use it to improve border controls, to put more police on the streets, and bolster the security services.

He might have pointed out that we face a real and immediate terrorist threat and that ID cards will not be fully operational for at least seven years, even assuming the technology works. The Tories might have remarked on how America's Department of Homeland Security, no slouchers in the war on terror, have no plans for a national ID card, but prefer to concentrate their efforts on border control and intelligence.

They might have mentioned that the real terrorist threat we face might actually come from within the pool of 26 million short-term visitors to British ports and airports every year, and that, if none of these foreigners needs an ID card, then why should your elderly parents in Cheltenham?

The Tories might, heaven forbid, have said they would not raise or spend the billions the ID scheme would cost because Conservatives believe in small government and want to cut taxes, not raise them.

<>But Mr Howard could not bear the thought of looking "weak on terror", so preferred to make his front-bench team seem ridiculous yesterday in forcing them to fall in line behind a scheme that will cost billions, make us no safer and ultimately prove highly unpopular. He has deprived millions of people like me with an innate scepticism towards government of a real choice next year. At the very moment when one senses that voters are growing uneasy at the controlling instincts of New Labour, the Tory front bench has endorsed Big Government on stilts. (Emphasis added)
Also, a few more critiques of Charles Clarke's defence of ID cards have appeared. The ever excellent has produced a good critique here.

Henry Porter also provides a good critique in Friday 17th's edition of the Guardian. A particularly good passage reads:
To be anonymous, to go privately, to move residence without telling the authorities is a fundamental liberty which is about to be taken from us. People may not choose to exercise this entitlement to privacy, or see the point of it, but once it's gone and a vast database is built, eventually to be accessed by every tentacle of the government machine, we will never be able to claw it back. We are about to surrender a right which is precious, rare even in western democracies, and profoundly emblematic of our culture and civilisation.
A further point Porter raises is that we currently have many ways of identifying ourselves if we wish. The point of the ID card is for the government to identify us.

That is why the ID cards bill contains e.g. £1000 fines for failing to notify the govt of a change of address and other similarly draconian requirements on people to fill forms in correctly. It is also why there will be an audit trail recording every use of the card, enabling the government to monitor all our lives in incredible detail, as stated in my earlier article. have also produced a clause by clause analysis of the ID cards bill that is well worth reading. has become an immensely useful resource on all things civil liberties, privacy and surveillance related.

Govt keeps legal advice re: ID cards secret

In line with its (lack of) commitment to freedom of information, the government has decided to keep the legal advice it received on whether the ID cards bill conforms to the European Convention on Human Rights secret. According to The Register:

This line, however, merely confirms the Government's shameless approach to human rights in its legislation. One of the early moves of the Blair Government was to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into UK legislation in the Human Rights Act. This one might suppose would mean that the UK Government would be far more careful about human rights in its legislation, but instead of this it tends to be used as a kind of cloaking device. Instead of being accompanied by detailed assessments of human rights impact, UK legislation now tends to have just a one liner saying 'the provisions of this legislation are compatible with the European convention of human rights.' So, as Browne put it today, the Cabinet has advice on the impact prepared for it, and nobody else needs to see the advice because the legislation has been deemed to be compatible by the Cabinet. Trust us.
Thus in one fell swoop this illustrates both the weaknesses of the human rights/freedom of information legislation and the attitudes of this government towards privacy, openness, freedom of information and human rights. I.e. they know best and are quite happy to keep secrets about the legislation that will open up our lives to their scrutiny at the expense of our privacy and freedom.

Monday, December 20, 2004

Charles Clarke's woolly defence of the govt's ID cards

Charles Clarke has written an article in The Times defending the govt's plans for identity cards. He claims that ID cards will prevent benefit fraud and help in the "War on Terror". However his claims do not stand up to scrutiny.

Take for example benefit fraud. He states:

Moreover, their help in tackling fraud will save tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. Some £50 million a year is claimed illegally from the benefits systems using false identities. This money can be far better spent improving schools and hospitals and fighting crime and antisocial behaviour.
However according to the govt's own regulatory impact assessment (see clause 19):
The current best estimate is that the additional running costs of the new Agency to issue ID cards on a wider basis will be £85m pa when averaged over a ten year period. A further £50m pa is the estimate for the average cost over ten years of the verification service but this would not fall on the individual card holder.
Thus the system is already projected at costing more than twice as much as could possibly be saved from benefit fraud on the govt's own figures!

Later on, Clarke accuses critics of ID cards for woolly liberal thinking, and claims there will be no real cost in civil liberties:
I believe that some critics of our proposals are guilty of liberal woolly thinking and spreading false fears when they wrongly claim that ID cards will erode our civil liberties, will revisit 1984, usher in the “Big Brother” society, or establish some kind of totalitarian police state. Those kinds of nightmare will be no more true of ID cards, when they are introduced, than they have been for the spread of cash and credit cards, driving licences, passports, work security passes and any number of the other current forms of ID that most of us now carry.
This argument is quite flawed. The forms of ID we now carry are either entirely voluntary (e.g credit cards, ATM cards, loyalty cards) or linked to and limited to very specific purposes (e.g. driving licences, passports). One is not even required to carry any of them, and one needn't own any of them if one doesn't wish to drive or travel abroad. None of them are universal.

However the main points missed in the above argument are that:
  • On the govt's current plans, the ID cards would become a licence to live, revokable at the touch of button. Once the cards become compulsory the govt plans for them to be required for getting a job, accessing government services and accessing benefits. It is highly likely they'll also become necessary for opening bank accounts, taking out mortgages, getting credit cards and making major transactions. Clarke's article even suggests they might be used for renting videos. With so much of daily life tied to these cards, it will be impossible or at least very difficult to live without one. And given that they'll be tied to a central database with one entry per person, they could be rendered useless at the touch of a button by govt officials either deleting or flagging the database entry. This isn't an identity card, this is an internal passport.
  • According to the ID cards bill, the database entries will record all accesses for auditing purposes, thus every time you or your card is checked against the corresponding database entry, this fact will be recorded. Thus if a card check is required for accessing e.g. medical or educational services, this fact will be recorded in the database. Thus the ID card system will enable detailed recording of your everyday activities, more comprehensive than any store's loyalty card and compulsory to boot.
  • The ID card will facilitate all sorts of surveillance activity. If every resident has one by law, then the police merely need to ask for identification when people leave, e.g. political or religious meetings, protests, pubs, or any venue. Although carrying one won't be compulsory, the bulk of the law abiding population is likely (a) to carry it (because it is needed for so many things) (b) hand it over. And there's nothing to stop a future govt making it compulsory to carry.
It thus seems clear to me that the proposed system will form a powerful tool for social control and has very little to do with eliminating benefit fraud. However Clarke's claims that it will be useful for fighting terrorism, will help with identity fraud, and will even help prevent such tragedies as the death of the cocklers in Morecambe Bay, remain:
For example, a secure identity system will help to prevent terrorist activity, more than a third of which makes use of false identities. It will make it far easier to address the vile trafficking in vulnerable human beings that ends in the tragedies of Morecambe Bay, exploitative near-slave labour or vile forced prostitution. It will reduce identity fraud, which now costs the UK more than £1.3 billion every year.

Taking the £1.3 billion figure first. This figure comes from a report on identity fraud produced by the government a few years ago (see Annex B for the figures). However the figures contributing to this are not reliable, often included items that identity cards would do nothing to fight and were often based on guesswork. For example the figure was compiled, in part, on the assumption that 10% of VAT fraud (£215m out of £2.15billion) was due to identity fraud. The figures for credit card fraud (£370m) included card not present fraud e.g. for internet payments or payments over the phone. ID cards would have no impact on this. Why is the govt using such a dodgy figure to argue for a flagship piece of legislation?

As for the Morecambe Bay cocklers they were working illegally and off the books for companies that did not have scruples about employing illegal immigrants trafficked in from outside the country. How likely is it that such companies would ensure all their employees had ID cards? How likely is it that illegal workers would contact the authorities to register? The problem here was a lack of policing of employment/immigration, not a lack of identity cards. Unless the policing of these areas is increased the identity cards will make no difference.

Finally to the terrorists using multiple identities, it would appear that on Clarke's figures most terrorists (about two thirds of them) do not do so and therefore would not be affected by identity cards. Still disrupting the activities of the remaining third would be quite useful. But will the identity cards do this?

It is here that the discussion has to get down to some technical issues and the hurdles the identity cards system faces. The government is relying on biometric scans such as fingerprints and iris scans to prevent multiple identities being registered on the system for the same person. So, for example, when you enroll on the system your biometric scans will be compared with those already on the system to try and ensure you only get one identity on the system. Clearly allowing multiple identities will seriously undermine the ability of the system to deal with any of the problems above.

And this is where things fall down. Biometric scans are scans of living systems (people!) and multiple scans of the same part of the same person will not be identical. Moreover when comparing biometric scans one looks for closeness of match. Thus when deciding whether two scans match, one has to decide where to draw the line -- how close a match is good enough. Thus each biometric has associated with it a false match rate (the chance of two scans from different people matching) and false nomatch rate (the chance of two scans from the same person not matching). These typically have to be balanced off against each other to find a happy mean.

Now suppose you have a false match rate for a biometric of say 1 in a billion (higher than any I've seen claimed for existing biometrics -- typical claims range from 1 in 10000 to 1 in a few million). Note that this must include the possibility of operator error in using the machines, faulty machines and software errors. Suppose further that the database already has 20 million entries in it. There will be almost a 2% chance that a false match occurs. I.e. 1 in 50 people will register a false match, against a database of 20 million. And this figure will grow with each addition. The govt's plans would involves millions of people registering per year. For each million new people added, one can expect 20,000 (and growing) false matches on a database of 20 million people. Any system for dealing with these false matches and trying to ensure they're not attempts to fool the system into taking multiple identities are likely thus to get overwhelmed, they'll need to deal with 10s of thousands of false positives.

To add further doubt, this is a large IT system, one of the largest the govt will ever have attempted to produce. It's record with such systems (criminal records bureau, passport office, etc) is atrocious. Even the Police National Computer is shot full of errors!

As if that weren't enough, both fingerprints and iris scans have been shown to be forgeable. For example, fingerprints have been forged from prints left on a glass. And Iris scanners have been fooled by someone looking through a picture of an Iris with a hole cut out where the pupil lies. Admittedly the latter technique wouldn't be practical in most situations, but the lack of sophistication of the technique suggests, e.g. contact lenses printed with an Iris might actually fool the scanners.

At any rate, I'd expect those wishing to fool the system to use the long roll out to study the system and the scanners intently for weaknesses. Given government incompetence, the technical limitations of biometrics and the sheer ambition of what the govt's attempting, it seems to me quite clear that it'll be lucky if it makes any positive impact on fighting identity fraud or any other problem the govt has cited at all.

Does this mean we have nothing to worry about? Not quite. Most law abiding people will cooperate with the system, and the system may well thus "work" for this section of the population. Thus law abiding people will find themselves subjected to a licence to live, intrusive surveillance and a bureacracy capable of meddling in just about every area their lives thanks to the card. The criminals and terrorists won't.

The cards should be abandoned as a waste of resources from an anti-crime/anti-terrorism/anti-benefit fraud point of view and as a serious erosion of privacy and individual freedom otherwise.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Govt orders destruction of emails

According to this report in the Scotsman newspaper, the government has ordered that all government emails more than 3 months old be destroyed:

The Cabinet Office, effectively the Prime Minister’s department, says messages more than three months old must be wiped by Monday, The Times revealed.

The deadline comes just 11 days before the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act comes into force.

Conservative leader Michael Howard has written to Mr Blair demanding an explanation.

“There are reports that your Government is engaged on a massive email destruction binge in order to get round the law which you yourself passed,” he wrote.

“How hypocritical can you get ? What is your Government trying to hide ?

“The public are entitled to a clear and simple explanation as to what is going on.”

Many officials, including those in the PM’s Strategy Unit and the offices of Alan Milburn and Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull, receive around 100 emails a day.

The Cabinet Office’s 2,000 staff have been told to print and file emails that should be disclosed but there will be no supervision.
(Emphasis added)
Such is the government's commitment to freedom of information. But then anyone who reads the Freedom of Information Act would soon realise the government's commitment was weak -- the Act sets out a right of access to information held by the government and then produce a list of exemptions so broad as to effectively nullify that right.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Incredible fun

A couple of nights ago I went to see The Incredibles at the cinema. What can I say but that this is funniest, most enjoyable movie I've seen in ages.

Pixer have done it again and produced an animated masterpiece, with great characters, incredible special effects, engaging storyline and wonderful gags.

The basic plot is that a retired super-hero couple, Mr Incredible and Elastigirl, come out of retirement, along with their kids, to battle an evil enemy. However that is a truly inadequate description of a move that is quite simply great fun to watch and forms a wonderful homage to various genres such as Bond movies, super hero movies and action movies generally.

The heart of the movie is the wonderful contrast between the Parr family, as a modern semi-dysfunctional family complete with a shy highly self-conscious teenage daughter, an overworked mum, a father frustrated by his day job plus a wayward son getting into trouble at school, and their superhero alter egos with their special powers and the desire to do good and battle evil.

Numerous hilarious gags are built around this contrast and around the heroes' use of their powers. Especially good are the scenes where the kids are finally allowed to use their powers to the full and find out what they're capable of. And the characters developed through the film as they battle with and confront their hangups -- a nice parallel with their battles with the evil enemy "Syndrome".

Mixed in with all this we have a designer of super hero costumes who's a brilliant parody of a fashion designer, a Bond-esque base inside a volcanic Island which becomes the setting for much of the action and of course the sort of stunning computer animation that is Pixar's trademark. There's even a theme mixed in about the ill effects of the culture of compensation and litigation, though it's not allowed to stand in the way of the sheer fun of this movie.

An enjoyable romp from beginning to end. I recommend you take your kids (if you have any), your partner or your friends to see it. Just be careful as you might crack your ribs laughing!