By Tom Allan
The brave new world of biometrics came to my local shop this week. It was a Saturday night, and people were queuing for up beer, wine, cigarettes and snacks – a cheap night in for students and broke couples. The economic winter is well under way.
I happened to be hanging out by the newspapers with a microphone and recording kit (as you do.)
A woman with curly brown hair was buying some cigarrettes. She must have looked a bit young, because she was asked for id.
“Are you on the machine?” The woman behind the counter asked.
The “machine” turned out to be a fingerprint scanner. There it was, sitting on the counter right in front of me – a small grey box with a glowing green plate, awaiting the girl’s willing digit.
It took a couple of attempts before it worked. Finally it beeped with satisfaction, and thanked the girl with a reassuring American accent. Nice.
Helen said she was twenty two. I asked her why she had signed up for the machine.
“I was getting fed up with being asked for my ID all the time.” she said. “I don’t think I look that young, but evidently I do. So she asked if I wanted to put it on the fingerprint thing, and because there was a bit of a queue behind me, I did.”
And she wasn’t the only one. In this small shop, in a town with a population of about 7,000, 165 people had signed up to the scheme within a few months.
“We’re not like the police, we don’t take a picture of a fingerprint.”
Rod Harrington, OK-ID
But did she know what had happened to her finger-print? Did she know where it was being kept? She said no. And she was worried about it.
“Do you think something bad might have happened to it? I’m on the system now. Do you know where it’s gone?” she asked.
So – what has happened to Helen’s fingerprint?
The company behind the machines is called OK-ID. So was this a shadowy organisation collecting sensitive biometric data from thousands of unwitting young people? I found a brochure on the internet, and gave one of the Directors, Rod Harrington, a call.
“We’re not like the police, we don’t take a picture of a fingerprint” he said.
When the machine scans your fingerprint, Mr.Harrington explained, it measures the distance between about sixty points, converting those measurements into a binary number. He assured me that this number cannot be converted back into a fingerprint. Furthermore, every OK-ID machine is a stand-alone unit. It’s not hooked up to other machines elsewhere, and the data isn’t stored or collected by the company.
More importantly, the machine doesn’t record any personal details to go with the fingerprint, such as name or address. That means that the raw data, all those binary digits, is washing around without any markers that could lead back to you.
It’s like popping your front door key into a jar with hundreds of other people’s keys. If someone knew who’s key it was, it might be a problem. But they don’t.
The main purpose of the machines, as Mr. Harrington explained to me, is to protect businesses like Spar and Costcutter from being fined or losing their licenses if they unwittingly sell alchohol or cigarrettes to underage kids. They’re proving popular – since May, the Bolton based business has sold and installed over 250 units, mostly in small shops.
Talking to Mr.Harrington settled most of my worries about the machines. I felt that I could tell Helen to relax about her fingerprint.
But I still had a nagging doubt, a worry that using biometrics for something so mundane, so everyday as buying alcohol, was a bit wrong. Am I behind the times?
“If you ask young people, they fully understand the applications of biometrics” said Mr. Harrington. “They’re used to it. They’ve probably experienced it when they were at school over the last five to eight years. There’s library systems at schools, there’s lunch systems at schools, they’re actually taught it in schools.”
And that, I think, is why I’m still concerned. Because whilst young people may be fluent in new technologies and tools – everything from twitter to bebo to biometrics – few of them seem to be politically aware. Would they think to check what was happening to their personal information? Will they ask the right questions about what they’re fingerprints or iris scans will be used for – whether it’s a company or a Government agency that’s collecting it?
The National Identity Register
One of the things that became clear to me by following Helen’s fingerprint trail, was that a print on it’s own is harmless. It’s when that biometric key is linked to our names, and details of our lives, that it’s power increases dramatically.
Over the next four years, the UK Government will gradually introduce a biometric identity card. Although they will not be compulsory, it will become increasingly difficult not to have one. Perhaps inspired by the approach of social networking sites, the Government expects people to “opt into” the scheme because of it’s convenience.
In fact, the plans for the ID cards have been substantially watered down, precisely because some people – civil liberties groups, politicians, and independent minded ordinary people – do not trust the Government with all that information. Above all, far fewer personal details will now be stored on the mega-database linked to the ID cards, the National Identity Register. The database will not include details about a persons race, religion, sexuality, health, criminal record or political beliefs.
But it will still record a data trail every time you use the card, and every time some of the information changes. Our independent data protection watchdog, the Information Commisioners Office, has expressed fears that this will allow the Government to build up a picture of people’s lives and habits that will be deeply intrusive. And the Commissioner has said that the scheme will add to tools like CCTV and facial recognition, to create an increasingly complete surveillance society.
In fact, Rod Harrington of OK-ID is personally opposed to the id system – with or without biometrics. “That, we feel, is an intrusion” he said. and he pointed out that with his companies system, people were offered a clear choice.
I started this story with a strong prejudice against these machines, and an inherent distrust of their use. But I can see now that it’s a far more complicated picture. It’s not about the technology itself, but about how it’s used. And it shows how important it is for us to ask the right questions.
Hopefully the public and the media will do just that when biometric ID cards, and the national information register, becomes as much a part of our lives as the local shop.