Monday, 27 February 2012

The belief in the efficacy of biometrics is akin to the belief in astrology

Warning. In the following paragraphs approximately half the world will be insulted. Please stay your hand revengewise. In no time at all, the other half will be equally insulted.

Why is it, our ancestors asked, that the children in a given family aren't identical? Some of them are boys, others girls. Some of them are outgoing, others repressed. And yet they have the same parents. What can explain the difference?

It's a good question and our ancestors came up with a good hypothesis by way of an answer. It had to be something unique about each child in the family, something that distinguished each from the others. And the answer suggested was ... the position of the planets at the moment of birth. Permanently in motion, there is something unique about the position of the planets at any given moment. And they're big, the planets, big enough to influence developments here on earth.

Astrology looks as though it ought to have some explanatory value. We naturally believe that there is something unique about each individual person who ever exists and we naturally look for reasons for that, or at least for causes.

Like a lot of hypotheses, astrology has failed. Nothing surprising about that. Most hypotheses fail. Half of science is all about trying to disprove hypotheses. It's that massive failure rate that gives the remaining not-yet-disproved hypotheses their strength. That's what makes knowledge special and rare and hard to come by and valuable.

(The other half is all about having enough knowledge and dedication and imagination to devise a worthy hypothesis in the first place.) 

Anyway, as far as about half the world is concerned, astrology is a waste of time. It's bunkum. It doesn't explain character traits. No causal link between the position of the planets at the moment of his birth and the money-making abilities of Richard Branson, say, has ever been established, his life is not written in the stars, the stars give us no hint what to expect from him next, his horoscope is a useless piece of paper.

You astrologically-inclined persons believe in magic. What the rest of us believe in is science. Scientific experiments are repeatable. Science is respectable and defensible and logical and intelligent and grown up and allows us to predict events in advance.

At least, that's what we like to believe.

We're very scientific and we spend a lot of money on science, which proves our faith, and we like it when scientists talk to us on television but, oddly, we still can't predict earthquakes. Or the eruptions of volcanoes. Or tsunamis. Little things like that seem still to elude us.

Those failures will not detain scientists for a moment. Quite rightly. We may not have all the explanations yet, but we're working on it and we've got a tremendous record of success behind us, a centuries-long demonstration that if we only stick at it, the solution is discovered in the end. The science improves. Technology improves. You can talk to someone in real time on the other side of the planet thanks to telephones. That would once have been considered magic. No more.

No-one can have any objection to research money being spent legally on science while it's still at the hypothesis stage. Certainly not if it's private/personal money or charitable trust money. That's up to the individuals or charities concerned and none of our business, the rest of us. Equally, we can hardly be expected to rely on unproven science like astrology in our everyday lives and we are quite within our rights to object if someone tries to force us to.

Things change when it comes to business. His shareholders would quite properly look askance at Richard Branson if he spent company money on astrological research projects rather than on the dividends that could otherwise be paid.

And they change mightily when it comes to public money. Public money is meant to be spent wisely and in a businesslike way in the interests of the public, so that it contributes to the "common welfare". It's wrong for a public authority to fritter away taxpayers' money, or borrowings added to the national debt, on hopeless (?) hypotheses like astrology.

Of course, our government here in the UK doesn't do that sort of thing.

Or does it?

Consider the Home Affairs Committee report on the Brodie Clark affair, Inquiry into the provision of UK Border Controls. (You knew that was coming. Didn't you?) And consider particularly para.10:
... Rob Whiteman [Chief Executive of the UK Border Agency] explained that he believed that the reason Ministers were opposed to any reduction of Secure ID checks was because they did not agree with Brodie Clark's assessment of them as 'secondary checks' due both to the deterrent effect of the check and because "of course, if somebody is found by that, it is actually quite a high-risk case—if somebody has gone to the position of forging the photograph in comparison with the photograph on the chip—so, although the number might be very low, Ministers were of the view that the risk value of an incident would be high."
Mr Whiteman is slightly confused here. Science is difficult for the best of us, but "Secure ID" is all about fingerprint checks, not face recognition and what UKBA call "opening the chip" in ePassports. Still, it's only a slight confusion, they're both biometrics and biometrics, of course, is a proven science, isn't it.

No, it's not. The belief in the efficacity of mass consumer biometrics is still at the faith stage, it's magic, it's an unproven hypothesis, and the Home Affairs Committee might just as well have written:
... Rob Whiteman explained that he believed that the reason Ministers were opposed to any reduction of Astrological ID checks was because they did not agree with Brodie Clark's assessment of them as 'secondary checks' due both to the deterrent effect of the check and because "of course, if somebody is found by that, it is actually quite a high-risk case—if somebody has gone to the position of forging their date and place of birth in comparison with the star sign on the chip—so, although the number might be very low, Ministers were of the view that the risk value of an incident would be high."
The unnamed ministers' argument relayed by Mr Whiteman is a candidate for the most stupid argument put forward yet in the Brodie Clark affair. Until the Home Office give us some reason to believe that biometrics work and that public money is being wisely invested in this technology, the UK Border Force procedures with regard to biometrics are no more comprehensible than instructing them to detain all Sagittarians.

Ah, you may say, but the technology will improve.

Will it? How do you know that? It hasn't yet. And astrology hasn't improved. So why should biometrics?

And why invest in it and rely on it in our everyday lives before it's known to work? If Richard Branson tried that on, then the institutions who hold his shares would take him aside and suggest that perhaps, old boy, you know, the time isn't right just yet, why don't we wait a bit, let the dust settle, see how the cards fall, then it might be worth investing but until then, it really doesn't look businesslike, in fact it barely looks rational.

The managers of a company have a fiduciary duty to their shareholders to behave rationally and in a businesslike manner. The Home Office even more so – that's public money they're spending. No doubt it seems like magic to Whitehall that we give them £710 billion to spend every year. But there are a few formalities to observe, not behaving like a credulous ignoramus being just one of them.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a Comment