if you’re not on the list you’re not coming in

OK, so what about those identity cards for (some kinds of) foreign nationals? You’ll recall that the Government promised, back in the spring, to have them out and operational in 300 days. As late as July, there were no actual contracts for the job, but they did actually manage to bring in Thales to start work. So how’s it going?

Well, despite the vast cutback in scope and scale, the decision to base it on crappy existing records, and just to forget about the National ID Register for now (thus obviating the whole point)…it’s already over budget by 29% and it’s sliding right, from March 2009 to August 2010. Cracking; the element of the project they specially rushed forward in order to get something, anything working on time has now slid so badly that it’s caught up with the rest of the project.

Meanwhile, the Home Office is issuing 5,400 fraudulent passports a year, among some 200,000 dodgy docs in circulation. Apparently “automated facial recognition” will solve it; this doesn’t make very much sense, as surely the main problem is people submitting genuine photographs of themselves and falsifying the biographical section of the form.

Further, face recognition systems are poor enough (remember the one in Newham that never actually caught anyone?) at positive identification; checking the face provided against the one on file. The failure rate in the Home Office 2004 trials was about 30 per cent. But the IPS and DVLA seem to think they can rely on it to guarantee that the same person isn’t already registered, and do this by matching faces to a database containing tens of millions of faces, taken under all kinds of different circumstances. What kind of false-positive rate can you expect from that?

In fact, it’s worse; if they’re trying to detect multiple applications or applications under false names, the evidence of an honest application will be the absence of a match. So the most common failure mode will result in the document being issued anyway, and there is no way to detect this. And you won’t be able to assume that a match is proof of fraud either, because of the inevitable false positives; so the chance of successfully getting a passport or driving licence in someone else’s name might actually be better.

3 Comments on "if you’re not on the list you’re not coming in"

  1. Well it’s good that the whole thing has been lamed by technical incompetence, but we shouldn’t be too pleased with ourself. We failed to defeat the scheme based on the principle of the thing, and this bodes badly for the future. The technical issues with biometrics will presumably be worked out at some point, so our victory thanks to their technical incompetence may be short lived.


  2. The technical issues, in general, are quite fundamental. Look back through the blog for data; but the problem is basically that even 99% accuracy with an n value of (44 million*somewhere between 10 and 1000) means an overwhelmingly huge number of cockups. Even telecoms engineering standards of reliability won’t do much better.


  3. This is hilarious. Japan have had id cards for foreign nationals since world war 2. I had one (they wouldn’t let me keep it when i left, sadly). They use a record-keeping system based on city wards. I have never met a foreigner in Japan without one.

    What is it with the UK just not being able to actually do anything right?


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