Friday 16 December 2011

The on the spot answer

This is the (draft and subject to change) answer to a comment posted by one Mr Reader:

Dear Mr Reader

Thank you for trying to put me on the spot. I’ve been trying to put myself on the spot for years. And failing.

Assuming that that continues, when the final enquiry report is in at the end of next month, the most likely outcome is that everyone’s reputation will be tarnished – Brodie Clark, Theresa May and Helen Ghosh – but the daily round will revert to its pre-4 November 2011 pattern, the usual dismal calm will prevail in the Dark Department, there will be no more sense of sudden explosions, nasty surprises and unexpected eruptions.

That’s the 98%+ likely scenario. A dirty taste in the mouth, business as usual re-established.

The outcome with the 2%- probability of happening?

Consider the following Economist article, Friday 11 May 2012:

Brodie Clark speaks quietly and at first no-one heard him say that fingerprint verification is the ninth and lowest priority security/identity check at the border, the least reliable check and the most sensible check to suspend when the disorderly queues in Arrivals begin to threaten safety.

Well everyone’s heard him now, thanks to the alliance between Theresa May, the UK’s Home Secretary, and Helen Ghosh, Permanent Secretary at the Home Office. Their careers both shipped a lot of water in the days following 4 November 2011 and they were determined to find out why.

Clark was supposed to have endangered UK border security by suspending fingerprint checks. But May and Ghosh could find no evidence that fingerprint checks promote border security. There is none. So he hadn’t endangered anything.

True, he had arguably disobeyed his minister. She had specifically instructed that fingerprint checks were not to be relaxed for non-EEA nationals. But did that instruction refer exclusively to the new intelligence-led border security scheme being piloted? Was the suspension of fingerprint checks covered by the 2007 HOWI procedures?

Pure noise. The real question was: why did the Home Secretary instruct that fingerprint checks should not be suspended, given that they’re no use? Answer, because she had been told by her officials that the technology is reliable. Who told her that? And why?

As May and Ghosh looked deeper and deeper into the affair, the tangled web of today’s mass consumer biometrics industry began to unravel. First in the UK Border Agency, where IBM’s National Identity Assurance Service contract was cancelled. That took out Morpho at the same time. (Morpho is a subsidiary of France’s Safran Group, their answer to our BAE Systems.) And Computer Sciences Corporation and VFS Global.

The damage spread to the National Policing Improvement Agency, where they were using Morpho’s products for mobile fingerprinting by police patrols – not any more they’re not. And to the Identity & Passport Service, where they use Morpho for biometrics in ePassports. For the moment. And to DWP, who were going to use voice biometrics for their Universal Credit system, but can only be described now as tight-lipped about their plans.

Who advised the Home office on biometrics? They got internal advice from the Home Office Scientific Development Branch and external consultancy advice from PA Consulting. Not any more they don’t.

How did this fiasco persist, the Prime Minister wants to know, under the leadership of Lord O'Donnell, until last years head of the home civil service, and Sir David Normington, Dame Helen's predecessor? We await the answer with interest.

Projects that depend on these biometrics being reliable were being cancelled all over Whitehall. The taxpayer didn’t know whether to be furious about being deceived for so long by the Home Office or deliriously happy when the savings from all these cancelled projects over the next 10 years topped £20 billion.

This sort of news doesn’t respect borders. Safran Group were relying on Morpho for 20% of their turnover. Once the news had rowed across the channel, their turnover was down by 20%. Former President Sarkozy tried to blame the Anglo-Saxons but then turned on the European Commission, blaming their 2003 OSCIE specification for a pan-European biometric ID card. The European Commission blamed the US Department of Homeland Security and the DHS blamed NIST, the US National Institute of Standards and Technology.

Which was too much for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in India, where they’re spending billions on Aadhaar, a biometrics-based identity management scheme for 1.2 billion people. At least they were.

And so the truth rolls on, bowling around the world, knocking over civil servants like ninepins wherever it fetches up. In China,  one day Dr Tieniu Tan was a research professor with dozens of successful spin-off companies and, next day, he wasn’t. In Pakistan, first Brigadier Saleem Ahmed Moeen (Retd) was Chairman of NADRA, then there was no NADRA and now the Brigadier really is retired.

And all because of a quietly-spoken Glaswegian, speaking quietly on 15 November 2011, giving evidence to the Home Affairs Committee. Listen to him here. The good bit starts at 12:18.

1 comment:

Torygraph Reader said...

Fascinating insight - and an impressive self-spotting performance. Okay, apart from yourself, who should ministers be taking advice from? The problem with these people, far as I can see, is the age-old one of their civil servants controlling their red boxes. Getting through them takes so much time that there appears to be little time left over for investigation or reflection (which, I've assumed, is why ministers often make wrong decisions - that and basic stupidity, of course). Whoever's shouting in your ear can basically get the outcome they want - unless the minister is a four-hours sleep a night merchant or incredibly strong-willed and focussed. Problem is, they're often not that talented or clever, and unless their instincts are very strong - how are they to choose? As you keep pointing out, the system seems to demand that ministers end up as creatures of their civil servants. What's the best way of stopping that from happening? (Apart from appointing ministers with good instincts and automatically sacking civil servants who give bad advice - neither of which is going to happen anytime soon.)

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