Sunday 9 September 2012

Andrew Dilnot and honest political debate in the UK – 2

Whitehall officials are impervious to all requests to explain their mistaken choices.
And yet they are happy to tell us that we need midata to correct our errors.
After you, Whitehall.
After you.

--- o O o ---

We all make mistakes.

That's what the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) say. Faced with a choice, we make the wrong decision. We need help. Computerised help. And BIS aim to provide that help, through their midata initiative. Applications will process our historical transaction data, they will take into account the products and services currently available from the suppliers, and the right transaction will be brokered for us.

It's not just us proletarians. We all make mistakes. Even Whitehall officials.

It's 10 years since the Home Office published their consultation on what became known as "ID cards", Entitlement Cards and Identity Fraud – A Consultation Paper. Crucial to the system was the belief that all 60 million of us in the UK could be identified by various biometrics, specifically facial geometry and flat print fingerprints.

Utter cockpoppy, the technology's simply not up to it. But the choice had been made. By December 2010, when the Identity Cards Act 2006 was repealed, the Home Office confessed to £292 million of our money having been wasted on the scheme, with nothing to show for it.

The waste goes on. We're wasting money on biometrics in Sarah Rapson's ePassports. We're wasting money on Jackie Keane's Immigration and Asylum Biometric System. That takes in eGates that don't work at UK airports and UK visa application checking systems that don't work all over the world. As part of Project Lantern, the police are deploying mobile fingerprinting equipment that doesn't work. And DWP are threatening to use voice biometrics that don't work for their new Universal Credit system.

It goes on because of one wrong choice made 10 years ago. The reliability of the products wasn't checked properly and adverse evidence was ignored. Typical headstrong proletarian behaviour, no idea what's in anyone's best interests, naïve consumers, too much money burning a hole in their pocket, just buy it because it looks good on TV and sounds modern.

How can you help?

You can write to ministers and their officials. That doesn't help. You can write magazine articles and letters to newspapers and comments on blogs and you can write your own blog. You can speak at public meetings and on the radio. That doesn't help. You can have meetings at the Home Office and ditto. You can respond to government consultations and attend government briefings. Fat lot of good it'll do you. You can write to your MP. He or she will get an answer for you. But it won't help. Whitehall wants biometrics and Whitehall's jolly well going to have biometrics, never mind if they don't work.

So then you have another idea. Get reinforcements. Call on organisations that have institutional power.

When the Home Office start advertising their misbegotten ID cards scheme and making unrealistic claims for the reliability of today's mass consumer biometrics, you report them to the Advertising Standards Authority. Brilliant. Except that there's nothing the ASA can do in this case.

So then you submit a freedom of information request asking what justification the Home Office have for investing public money in expensive systems which depend for their success on biometrics being reliable which they aren't and the Home Office know that perfectly well and therefore know that all or some of our money will be wasted. 2½ years later, thanks to the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights), you're 2½ years older and none the wiser, Whitehall continue bone-headedly against all the evidence to waste our money on biometrics.

Then Sir Michael Scholar, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, makes an important point:
One of the reasons I took this job is that having good statistics is like having clean water and clean air. It’s the fundamental material that we depend on for an honest political debate.
Honest political debate? Maybe the UKSA can help. Maybe if they or the Office for National Statistics said that the biometrics technology being considered is not reliable enough, then the Home Office would stop wasting our money? No good. The UKSA can only comment on official statistics. And the statistics adduced from the UK Passport Service biometrics enrolment trial aren't official.

This attempt to help the Home Office to make evidence-based policy and to face up to their mistake – choosing to rely on flaky biometrics – clearly goes back years. Lots of effort. No results. The fundamental material that we depend on for an honest political debate still eludes us.

And then Andrew Watson succeeds through a freedom of information request in getting the National Policing Improvement Agency's own internal report on mobile fingerprinting equipment published.

The report is full of statistics, it's marked "Restricted-Commercial", it's got Northrop Grumman's logo on it and it's been prepared for the Police Information Technology Organisation (the old name for the National Policing improvement Agency). Official, or what?

By this stage, Sir Michael Scholar has been replaced by Andrew Dilnot as chair of the UKSA. Can Mr Dilnot comment on the reliability of mass consumer biometrics? No. The statistics still aren't official enough:
From: xxxxxxxxxx On Behalf Of authority enquiries
Sent: 01 August 2012 23:19
To: 'David Moss'
Subject: Re: Misleading use by the Home Office and others of statistics associated with biometrics

Dear Mr Moss

Thank you for your email to Andrew Dilnot regarding biometric information. I am replying on Andrew's behalf. We have considered this matter in discussion with David Blunt, the Head of Profession for Statistics at the Home Office. We share Mr Blunt's view that the studies to which you refer are not official statistics, and we understand from the Home Office that there are no current plans for official statistics in this area to be produced. As you will be aware from our earlier replies, the Authority's statutory remit covers official statistics as set out in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007. Our view therefore is that this remains a matter about which we would continue to encourage you to maintain a dialogue with relevant Home Office officials directly. We understand that you attended a meeting with Home Office officials in spring 2010 and, following further correspondence, you received a reply from the National Policing Improvement Agency in June 2010 regarding the specifics of the issues that concerned you.

I am sorry that we are unable to assist you further at the present time.

Kind regards

Private Secretary to Andrew Dilnot, Chair of the UK Statistics Authority
UK Border Force staff are laid off in the expectation that they can be replaced by biometric technology, then the queues at the airport get too long because the technology doesn't work and the staff have to be re-hired, but still Whitehall remains incapable of justifying its investment of public money in biometric technology which is too unreliable to do the jobs demanded of it. Incapable and unwilling.

Whitehall officials are impervious to all requests to explain their mistaken choices. And yet they are happy to tell us that we need midata to correct our errors.

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