16 February 2005

Name Calling

One of the government's arguments for ID cards is to help prevent 'identity fraud'. And it is an issue for many people.

With many of life's 'transactions' taking place over the phone, by post, or through the Internet, there has to be some way of identifying the respective parties to each other. The ID card may help us open accounts with banks and the like.

But the main argument the government has is the benefit they derive from our having ID cards – they can keep track of us. However their plans are deeply flawed.

For rural dwellers the cost of obtaining an ID card will much more than we have to pay the government. For to have a robust ID card, the applicant has to show up in person to allow their identity to be verified before the new legal document – their ID card – can be issued.

To make an ID card a robust method of confirming identity, there needs to be a link between the card which shows the identity and the person whose identity it is.

Passports have for many years relied on a photo and a signature which could be checked to make sure that the passport you proffer is your own. Fingerprints could be carried on your ID card and be checked against your finger.

But after the 'Shirley McKie' case where a policewoman was wrongly accused on duff fingerprint data, this no longer seems a reliable enough method of linking ID card to owner.

So the government are planning to use retinal scan technology.

Each person has a unique pattern of lines in their eye that can be used more reliably than the traditional fingerprint to check who you really are. But the 'eyeprint' is rather difficult to capture.

The number of offices where you can go to be 'scanned' for your ID card will be quite limited. Probably no more than six in Scotland.

So there are long, and expensive, journeys in prospect for rural dwellers who will have to travel at their own expense to a city.

But of course having this data on your ID card is only of any use if it can be checked.

And that means having a machine scan and compare your 'eyeprint' with the one on your card.

If there are only six machines in Scotland able to issue your card how are the police, in Stornoway for example, going to be able to check your ID card?

And there is worse.

In their rush to race ahead with their ID card scheme, the government are choosing a technically insecure system. A much bigger issue than the civil rights argument about government storing our personal data in their databases and then abusing it. And that is a big issue.

Let me put it this way – would you like every commercial organisation you deal with to have a copy of your fingerprints, or a copy of your DNA profile – or of your new 'eyeprint'?

Almost certainly not!

Whenever you proffer your ID card for an 'eyeprint' comparison it will be necessary to extract the data from your card and compare it with your actual eye.

But it does not need to, and should not, work that way.

Think about using your cash card and PIN number at a cash dispenser.

You probably think that your PIN number is stored in the database on your bank's computers. No!

What they do keep is an 'encrypted' version. And every machine you key your PIN into 'encrypts' your PIN inside a special computer chip that self-destructs if it is tampered with. That data is sent to your bank where their computer simply says 'Yes' or 'No' depending on whether or not you actually keyed your PIN correctly.

So to check your PIN nobody needs to know what your PIN is. A neat trick that keeps your PIN a secret that is not shared with anyone who accepts your card for payment.

That is how the ID card should work if it were secure.

But in their rush, this government are racing ahead of international standards that would allow your card to work in the safe way that your bank card does.

We know that the Royal Bank of Scotland issued the first Cashline cards in 1977, the first Scottish bank with online cash machines, and were able use the system I have just described.

So were are talking a well-proven approach.

Technology decisions made in a rush are always bad decisions. And governments have exceptionally bad records with technology projects.

This is a project which will cost the same as 2,000 extra police in Scotland.

And one which will mean your sharing your private information with any commercial company you deal with.

Time for a rethink methinks.

4 February 2005

Money, Money, Money

Some of the best debates in the Scots Parliament come when we try to look beyond the immediate needs of our citizens. The SNP debate last week on the economy was just such an occasion.

But in looking at the future, one inevitably sees a range of possible threats, opportunities and outcomes.

Many of those who are frightened by the idea of making all our own decisions, latch on to something in today's world to worry about.

In our debate that was exactly what Maureen Macmillan, Labour member for the Highlands and Islands did.

She told us that Scotland has an enormous and growing deficit, and concluded that we must therefore change nothing. She said that we should stick with present policies and the people who are managing our economy. In effect she was saying that we must endorse failure.

But then with the UK also suffering a large imbalance between income and spending, perhaps she did not wish to criticise a Labour chancellor at Westminster.

To be positive in the debate I gave an outline of the budget speech I would like to hear being made.

"The theme of the speech and the Budget as a whole is Open for Business. There is a natural process of change in our economy and I give notice that the Government will do everything in its power to ensure that our businesses remain competitive.

I speak of the need to promote success in the face of changing times. Our priorities are to remain competitive within an international marketplace, in which new rivals could emerge from anywhere around the globe. They can impact upon our ability to maintain our current standard of living and provide high quality public services.

However, in so doing, we must remember the social needs of all our citizens, especially those who are unable to directly participate".

I would want to continue:

"We have received confirmation of our Triple A credit rating from both Standard and Poors and Moody's rating agencies, providing further evidence of the esteem in which our finances are viewed externally.

In 2004-05, our economy is set to grow at a rate of 4.5% in real terms, a figure that exceeds the expectations of most other countries. We have a capital programme that will continue to afford work to many and promote full employment.”

We might even take initiatives to create small but significant opportunities for us to position ourselves for the future. For example, we might launch a,

"Zero rate of tax to businesses operating within the space industry. There are many new opportunities in this small but exceedingly promising area, including the manufacture, operation, sale or other activities provided in respect of launch vehicles".

Now of course that sounds like pure fantasy if you are already convinced that we are doing well – even with a large deficit.

Or you might think that a small country like ours could not be in a position that our government's money person could give such a speech.


Almost word for word my speech was a straight lift from the Isle of Man Treasurer's speech to the Manx Parliament, the Tynwald, on 17th February 2004. Read it for yourself on pages 729 to 738 of their Official Report if you want more.

The contrast with Scotland could not be more stark.

I have received answers from the Labour-Liberal Democrat government about their future planning. And been ridiculed for asking about their views of our needs in a mere ten years time.

Where there is no vision, the people perish.

And if the debate showed anything, it was that this government has no vision.

Expensive Phone Calls

If you go up to the “man in the street” and ask them what the significance of a telephone number staring 0845 is, many will think they know. They will say, “that's a local call”, or if they are really well-informed, they give it its Sunday name, lo-call.

And if you asked about an 0870 number many would say “that's a National Call”.

But if you asked them what they pay for such calls, they might be puzzled. They might imagine that an 0870 call – a “National Call” - would be charged at the “National Rate”. The reality is that you will pay twice what a call to Cornwall would cost.

So much so that companies providing an 0870 number to businesses will give those businesses about 3p a minute as a reward for encouraging their customers to use such numbers.

And so too with 0845 numbers, albeit much less so.

OFCOM have woken up to this “scam” and we might see something done soon.

Meantime keep your eye on your telephone bill and work out how much an 0870 call is costing you each minute.

Stewart Stevenson
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