Thursday, 25 April 2013

Public administration and the McCormick spectrum

Hooked on golf, PG Wodehouse did a good line in self-deprecating jokes about the English.

We are eternally stuck in the mud, he said, ill-equipped, unimaginative and lacking the spirituality required to understand the concept of hell except by our experience of the caniptions – "the least thing upset him on the links. He missed short putts because of the uproar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadows".

Gopher The Amazing Golf Ball Finder MKT0001782988  
It's not just the English. The frustrations of golf are suffered worldwide and it is surely in the tradition of Wodehouse's wry humour that eBay and Amazon among others, categorised as toys and collectables and novelties, sell "the perfect gift for the golfer who has everything", the Gopher, "the amazing golf ball finder", yours for about $20, complete with "instructional video", "eliminates the frustration of lost balls", "quick and easy to operate. Now its easy to find hidden golf balls! In deep rough or brush... Behind hazards, even under water! NO BATTERIES NEEDED!".

"A businessman who put thousands of lives at risk and fooled police forces, the military and governments around the world into buying fake bomb-detection kits for millions of pounds is facing jail after being found guilty of fraud." That's what it says in the Telegraph of 23 April 2013, "millionaire James McCormick, 57, sold the useless devices, based on novelty golf-ball finders worth less than £13, for as much as £27,000 each to customers including the Iraqi government, the United Nations, Kenyan police, Hong Kong prison service, the Egyptian army, Thailand's border control and Saudi Arabia".

Mr McCormick is estimated to have made £50 million by claiming that "his devices could detect minuscule traces of explosives, class A drugs, ivory and human beings at a distance of up to 1km at ground level and from a plane flying 5km high".

Shades of PG Wodehouse, the sales pitch seems to have been, stick the right card in the slot and you can detect anything – "the Iraqi police also bought the machines, as well as officials in Niger and Georgia, who asked for a special card to detect Georgian currency".

Cause and effect
The radio news on 23 April here in England was full of harrowing testimony from the victims of terrorist bombs. Lost limbs. Lost relatives. Lost futures.

Was Mr McCormick convicted of planting bombs? No. The courts found him guilty on three counts of fraud. He will be sentenced on 2 May.

Unofficially, the media found him guilty of selling false hope. The hope that people could avoid being blown to pieces thanks to a device that detects explosives.

He isn't alone in that crime. Just for good measure, the Telegraph tell us that "the devices came with an antenna that was not connected to anything" – officials at the "United Nations, Kenyan police, Hong Kong prison service, the Egyptian army, Thailand's border control and Saudi Arabia" must have connived in this spectacularly profitable deception.

Most products and services on the market are sold on the basis of a mixture of hope and technological efficacy.

Mr McCormick's explosive-detectors and the accompanying training sessions relied purely on hope. That's one end of the spectrum. Call it the "magic" end. Increase the level of efficacy just a bit and perhaps you find cures for baldness, anti-wrinkle creams and breath-fresheners.

Way up at the other end of the scale, almost pure technology, the "science" end, next to no hope required, you find ... what? We can all think of a few examples.

The MMR jab?

Anti-inflammatory drugs? (Every now and again DMossEsq wanders around London in excruciating pain because he over-produces calcium, which acts like grit in his joints. That's what the magicians tell him, pointing at large lumps of weapons grade calcium on the X-ray of his hips. His doctor hands over a couple of 50mg Diclofenac tablets. Result – pain-free walking for several years. The product just works. Full stop.)

For an ill-equipped stuck-in-the-mud Englishman, there's something of the parable about the McCormick story. Whenever the public (the public anywhere) are confronted by civil servants (officials) offering a patent remedy for a clutch of disparate ills, they should take care to determine where on the McCormick spectrum this remedy falls.

In October 2006, officials at the Identity & Passport Service (IPS), an executive agency of the UK Home Office, published a report, Identity Cards Act 2006 – first Section 37 report to Parliament about the likely costs of the ID Cards Scheme. The suggestion in that report was that illegal immigration, illegal working, sex offences, false asylum claims, terrorism, identity fraud and inefficient public services could all be "cured" by the judicious application of biometrics.

Magic? Or science?

Or somewhere in between?

The Home Office tested three biometrics in a large-scale trial in 2004:
  1. Face recognition failed about half the time. You might as well toss an unbiased coin.
  2. Flat print fingerprinting failed about 20 percent of the time. Useless – Heathrow airport can't send 20 percent of the passengers on Jumbo jets home again all day every day.
  3. And about 10 percent of the able-bodied participants in the trial couldn't record their iris scans in the first place. That figure rose to 39 percent for the disabled participants. Useless – the secretary of state for work and pensions can't tell 10 percent of the able-bodied workforce and 39% of the disabled workforce that they have no legal right to work in the UK.
In July 2006, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published their report Identity Card Technologies: Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence:
  • IPS told the Committee that the maximum acceptable failure rate of flat print fingerprinting is 1 percent. Any higher than that, and the technology would be no use for the ID cards scheme, see para.18 in the report.
  • The Committee pointed out that the 2004 trial results suggested a failure rate closer to 20 percent.
  • Afflicted by some form of tulipmania, IPS claimed that the trial wasn't really a trial and proceeded with flat print fingerprinting technology anyway, against all the evidence, until the ID cards scheme was cancelled in December 2010.
  • The tulipmania persists. The Home Office still run an expensive Immigration and Asylum Biometric System (IABS). And just last month IPS issued an invitation to tender for face recognition systems.
While he was still permanent secretary at the Home Office, Sir David Normington caused two of his officials – Brodie Clark and Lin Homer – to tell DMossEsq that face recognition was being deployed at UK airports following successful trials conducted at Manchester Airport. When the Independent Chief Inspector of the UK Border Agency published the report on his May 2010 inspection of Manchester Airport he said that he could find no evidence of any attempt to assess the reliability of face recognition.

Three world-class scientists published a paper on biometrics in October 2010, Fundamental issues in biometric performance testing: A modern statistical and philosophical framework for uncertainty assessment. Regularly asked by the US and UK governments for their advice, in their informed opinion, the discipline of biometrics is "out of statistical control".

Is the biometrics antenna connected to anything? Where does biometrics lie on the McCormick spectrum?


Updated 31 August 2013
Mr McCormick, it turns out, faced competition from one Gary Bolton:
20 August 2013: Man who sold fake bomb detectors jailed for seven years

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