Tuesday 6 March 2012

Why can't we be more like the Dutch?

Ministerie van Binnenlandse Zaken en Koninkrijksrelaties
Bekker: verbetering biometrisch paspoort mogelijk

Nieuwsbericht | 27-02-2012

Het gebruik van vingerafdrukken en digitale pasfoto's (biometrie) in het paspoort en de identiteitskaart is niet mislukt, maar levert nog onvoldoende op. De vingerafdrukken staan niet in een centraal bestand, ze worden niet gecontroleerd aan de grens en ook nauwelijks bij de uitgifte van reisdocumenten aan het gemeenteloket. Er zijn nog mogelijkheden om het gebruik van vingerafdrukken en foto's op paspoorten en ID-kaarten beter te benutten. De hooggespannen verwachtingen van tien jaar geleden zijn niet uitgekomen.
Clear enough. Nothing to add. You may say.

Oh alright, just for the English. That's Dutch, that is, and here is the Google translation:

Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations
Bekker: improving biometric passport may

News | 02/27/2012

The use of fingerprints and digital photographs (biometrics) in the passport and identity card has not failed, but supplies still insufficiently. The fingerprints are not in a central database, they are not checked at the border and also largely to the issuance of travel documents to the municipal service. There are possibilities for the use of fingerprints and photographs on passports and ID cards better. The high expectations of ten years ago did not materialize.
Professor Roel Bekker has investigated the matter of biometrics in Dutch passports and here in his report he concludes mildly that "the high expectations of ten years ago did not materialize".

A bit too mildly for the Dutch civil liberties campaigners, Privacy First, who have published a commentary on Professor Bekker's report in which they say, among other things:
An interesting detail in this context is that already the end of 2009 the huge error rate (21%) upon verification of fingerprints known to State Secretary Bijleveld (Kingdom Relations). The House was not until end of April 2011 informed about this error rate ...
It should be pointed out for new readers that when we say "fingerprints" here, we mean the newish technology of flat print fingerprinting, a glorified photocopying process adopted by the UK Home Office and others. Unlike traditional rolled print fingerprinting – which works – there is no police fingerprint expert involved, it's quick, it's cheap, it's clean and it's utterly unreliable.
That's a Google translation again but 21% is a massive error rate in any language.

Suppose you're an officer of the UK Border Force, you're sitting at Heathrow and two A380s have just landed. That gives you 1,000 travellers to check using the Secure ID system the geniuses back at the Home Office have provided you with. You know that on average you're going to get 210 false alerts. You're going to waste your time and the time of 210 travellers because Secure ID wrongly tells you that they are not who they say they are.

You can see why Brodie Clark told the Home Affairs Committee that fingerprint checks at the border are the least reliable security/identity checks his (now ex-)staff perform, why Secure ID is their ninth and bottom priority, and why when push comes to shove in the immigration hall – as it does with 1,000 tired people – the most sensible thing to do is to drop Secure ID.

You can see that. And the Dutch can see it. They've dropped their plans to maintain central registers of people's biometrics and to rely on biometrics for security. That's the lesson they learn from the fact that the wretched technology just isn't good enough or, as Professor Bekker puts it, "the high expectations of ten years ago did not materialize".

But not here in the UK. Oh no. Here in Alice's Wonderland we both acknowledge that the technology doesn't work and continue to spend money on it.

On 27 February 2012, the same day as the Dutch Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations announcement above, the Guardian told us that "the government is to double the number of people required to have a biometric residence permit (BRP) to stay in the UK, raising the number to 400,000 a year". By all means hand out residence permits where that is the right thing to do. But given that the biometrics don't work, why make them biometric residence permits? The biometrics add nothing. Except cost.

These biometric residence permits are all part of IABS, the Home Office's new Immigration and Asylum Biometric System. It doesn't just "do" residence permits. It's also meant to do border security. And it's meant to help to keep the 2012 Olympics safe.

In its first 18 months in power, the coalition government spent £735 million with IABS contractors.

The Dutch know that the biometric bits of IABS are a waste of time and money. A 21% error rate is a fail. Why can't the UK learn the same lesson?

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