Wednesday 21 March 2012

Stillborn (mort-né) French biometric ID card scheme killed by crude mistake in technocrats' design

Remember France? Remember 6 March 2012 when the French parliament decided to introduce national biometric ID cards? In a scheme reminiscent of Vichy? Time to take a look at the quality of the design decisions taken at this early stage. Do the technocrats know what they're doing?

We must start as ever with the immaculate speech given by Serge Blisko on 13 July 2011 ("the speech that just keeps on speaking"):
Le groupe socialiste au Sénat s’est d’ailleurs interrogé sur le fait que cette deuxième puce « services » soit gérée par le ministère de l’intérieur. Avez-vous besoin, en qualité de ministre de l’intérieur, de connaître les habitudes d’achat et de consommation ou les allées et venues de millions de citoyens ? Nous sommes là dans un monde tel que décrit par Orwell dans 1984, et dont l’obsession du contrôle me semble hors de propos s’agissant de la protection contre l’usurpation d’identité. Ce véritable problème ne demande pas un déploiement stratosphérique permettant de tracer les déplacements et les achats des individus !
The new ID card will have two chips (puces) in it, one of them to allow you to deal with the State (the puce régalienne) and the other for eCommerce (the puce commerciale). M. Blisko says that the effect of the latter would be to open your life to minute surveillance, the Minister of the Interior could learn all your buying preferences and he or she could know everywhere you go.

That Panopticon facility goes way beyond the putative objective of the legislation, which is meant to be restricted to identity theft (l’usurpation d’identité). In fact according to M. Blisko, it leaves the planet altogether and launches into the stratosphere.

Source: University of Tennessee, Knoxville
RECIPE: Mix plastic cards (50 million) and surveillance (24/7) into a large pan. Stir in taxpayers' money (several billion Euros) ...

Let's leave those ingredients to simmer for a while.

In the interim, consider instead this point. If each card is 1mm thick and if you need 50 million of them to certify the French population then, if you placed the cards one on top of the other, you would have a pile of plastic 50km high. M. Blisko is right. Your pile of plastic cards would reach from the Assemblée Nationale all the way up to the top of the stratosphere. (NB: Mont Blanc = 4.81km)

If you had been a Tsar of all the Russias, what wouldn't you have given for plastic cards to use in your propiska system! The прописка was an early form of Russian ID card issued in the nineteenth century to help to govern the population. Plastic – that twentieth century invention – would obviously have made propiski more durable than the mere paper that was available to the Tsars. If only plastic had been available, the Tsars would have ordered a 50km high pile of it like a shot.

They would. But we can't. We know that the earth and the seas are already polluted with too much plastic. If there is any alternative, we should use it and not add to the pollution. Is there an alternative?

What are the plastic cards needed for? Answer, to carry the puces which support secure transactions, whether régalienne or commerciale. Couldn't we put the puces in something else, instead of yet another plastic card? Yes. We could put them in a mobile phone (a portable).

As it happens, not only could we put chips in mobiles phones, we already are putting chips in mobile phones, as the redoutable M. Blisko effectively says:
Aux débuts du commerce sur internet, il y avait beaucoup de fraudes. Actuellement, afin de permettre un échange sécurisé, en particulier lors d’achats dépassant certains montants, il existe des mots de passe, des codes à utilisation unique qui peuvent être envoyés sur téléphone portable, des confirmations par mail, etc.
Payment systems – and therefore identity management systems – are moving to mobile phones. Everything is moving to mobile phones. The mobile phone is an ineluctable evolutionary process in society. Nothing can stop it. Anything that gets in the way is mown down contemptuously.

That includes the old 85mm x 54mm plastic card business. It's outdated and irrelevant. It's dead. As dead as leech-farming (la cultivation des sangsues?). And there's no point trying to revive it. Any tax money thrown at it is tax money wasted.

Today's Tsar of all the Russias would issue digital certificates, not plastic cards. And he would transmit them to people's mobile phones, he wouldn't post them. But not, apparently, today's French technocrat.

A true forget-nothing-learn-nothing Bourbon, the modern French technocrat is prepared to ignore the advent in the last millennium of the mobile phone. He is happy to propose a nineteenth century scheme for use today. In the ancien régime he still inhabits, so what if that means polluting the planet? And so what if it means wasting stratospheric amounts of taxpayers' money?

Our dish of plastic cards and surveillance is ready now. And very unappetising it looks, next to mobile phones:
  • People voluntarily pay for mobile phones themselves ...
  • ... and they voluntarily take their mobile phones with them wherever they go.
  • Mobile phones can be tracked. They have to be. That's how the mobile phone networks work. So you can be tracked.
  • The networks record who you call and who calls you. They have to. To connect the calls and to charge for them. The effect is that the networks know who your contacts are ...
  • ... as well as where they are.
  • And what's more, unlike the national biometric ID card, the mobile phone actually exists and has all these facilities for traçage now.
  • As we move around with our mobiles switched on, we are already all of us permanently projecting our identity onto the record, as we have been for years.
Children identify with their mobile phone and their mobile phone identifies them. The mobile phone is an ID card. It just is. It is the culmination of his dreams for any totalitarian (le comble de ses rêves?). It is a rich and succulent main course whereas by comparison the old-fashioned and unimaginative, pedestrian and under-powered plastic card scheme proposed by the French government is a sickly, thin gruel.

Which suggests a surprising conclusion. Inattendu (unexpected) but just for once, perhaps M. Blisko is wrong?

Perhaps the Interior Minister isn't interested in the ID card as an instrument of surveillance as M. Blisko alleges? The Minister's already got mobile phones for that.

The plastic cards are a mistake. They mean that the scheme cannot work for surveillance or for anything else, including the fight against identity theft. The national biometric ID card scheme is not yet born but it is already dead. So why does the Minister want it? It's a mystery.

When in doubt, follow the money. Then it can become clearer.

There are two big transfers going on:
  • Firstly, with the introduction of digital signatures under the Minister's scheme, risk is being transferred from the banks to the accountholders, and money therefore is being transferred the other way.
  • Second, a collection of suppliers, including astrologers and stamp-collectors and as we now know latter-day leech-farmers, will be paid public money to create a new identity management network that's not needed – it's not needed because France already has several mobile phone networks.
More and more, this Vichy law of 6 March 2012 looks like nothing more than an illegal State subsidy to a number of favoured industries, at least one of which (85x54 plastic cards) is already dead.

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