Fishy Tales

29 June 2005

Monsters from the ID

Excuse the punny reference to Forbidden Planet, but it's certainly true that, from not very far below the surface of the latest proposal for ID cards in the UK, monsters are indeed emerging.

Perhaps surprisingly, I'm for the principle of ID cards (or rather a central ID register) overall - but I do have ulterior motives. For one thing I like the idea of reducing form-filling and red tape, and therefore the number of civil servants required, and therefore the expense, of pulling together data that is already held on me by the government. Much better if, when I wish to claim benefits or whatever, I can choose to allow one department to exchange details with another using the common reference ID - in much the same way as I currently allow financial organisations to perform credit checks. My proposal is already pretty different to the proposed UK ID register however, in that it suggests I have full control over what use is made of my personal details. But let's leave that aside for now.

I also like the idea of snap referendums and NGO petitions through which verified members of the electorate can have their say and, if their numbers are substantial enough, amend government policies. With the web and a new interest in phone voting, direct democracy could become a reality. And rather than having to support a particular party and therefore its manifesto 100%, we can all pick and choose on the issues that really matter to us (I've talked about this before). Nice idea, but you can bet that our Glorious Leaders will resist any attempt to join up verified identity and democratic rights. Just look at the resistance to standard referendums or indeed anything that threatens the status quo.

Anyway, according to a Home Office Briefing the proposed ID scheme appears to be intended more to prevent negatives than to produce positives:

An ID cards scheme will help the UK counter
  • Identity Theft
  • Illegal Immigration and Working
  • Misuse of Public Services
  • Organised Crime and Terrorism

A summary by the Green Party takes all of these apart very well, as does the NO2ID Campaign, I'll selectively quote from both and trust them not to mind (you should still check sources):

Identity Theft
Both Australia and the USA have far worse problems of identity theft than Britain, precisely because of general reliance on a single reference source.
Costs usually cited for identity-related crime here include much fraud not susceptible to an ID system.
Nominally 'secure', trusted, ID is more useful to the fraudster.
The Home Office has not explained how it will stop registration by identity thieves in the personae of innocent others.

Illegal Immigration and Working
People will still enter Britain using foreign documents - genuine or forged - and ID cards offer no more deterrent to people smugglers than passports and visas. Employers already face substantial penalties for failing to obtain proof of entitlement to work, yet there are only a handful of prosecutions a year.

Asylum seekers have to be enrolled, background-checked and use a "smart" card to claim regular income benefits. People who defraud the benefits service usually do so by lying about finances and illegal work.

Many people working illegally do so with the full knowledge of their employers.

Misuse of Public Services
The overwhelming majority of benefit fraud occurs from people lying about their economic circumstances and health, not about their identity. ID cards will make little difference unless the data on the cards is expanded to include financial, medical and employment records.

Identity is "only a tiny part of the problem in the benefit system." Figures for claims under false identity are estimated at £50 million (2.5%) of an (estimated) £2 billion per year in fraudulent claims.

Organised Crime and Terrorism
Most crime is unsolved because the perpetrator hasn’t been caught, rather than because they haven’t been identified. In the UK last year, over 75% of 4 million reported crimes went "undetected" – no-one was even
arrested, much less charged or convicted.

Faking ID cards is no object at all to sophisticated terrorist and money-laundering groups: the perpetrators of the 9/11 atrocities were all either in possession of legitimate identification documents or held compelling forgeries. Those who are active in terrorist networks may well have the appearance of being typical law-abiding citizens in other aspects of their lives. The French government discovered that fraudulent production of their new "unforgeable" smartcard quickly became one of the most profitable criminal activities in the country in the mid-1990s.

Identity is not the key to preventing crime or terrorism. So unless the cards are used for greater "stop and search" police powers, or unless it becomes compulsory to carry them, it is difficult to see how they can affect crime figures.

We should also note that setting up an ID Register means implementing and maintaining about the biggest, baddest and most critical IT system you can get. Do we trust the current government to make a good job of it, or to bring in the right people to do the job? Simon Jenkins in the Sunday Times draws attention to plenty of past and current form which means you could bet your shirt on yet another outrageously wasteful and expensive IT fiasco, probably courtesy of the Government's favourite IT Services provider EDS. Which, being an American company, ensures we maintain our "special relationship" with the US i.e. we give them our money but fail to hold them to account when they fail to deliver. Admittedly Government specifications are usually wooly and variable, as witness the amount the goalposts have already moved around regarding the proposed ID Register. I'll bet they never stop moving.

Even once a proposed ID Register is up and running, IT Systems aren't magical. To repeat the old phrase "garbage in, garbage out". People need to be registered on the system by other, fallible, people who have to look at other, possibly fallible or fraudulent, evidence of identity and trust it's worth.

"Ah," I hear you ask, "but won't Biometrics sort this out - fingerprint recognition, iris recognition and so on? So people will only be able to register once and will always be uniquely identifiable?"
In short, no, because biometrics aren't reliable enough in themselves; even according to the International Association of Biometrics as quoted in the New Scientist back in Nov 2003:
Bill Perry, of the UK's Association for Biometrics, agrees that there is an upper limit to the reliability of iris scans. There are too many environmental variables: scans can be affected by lighting conditions and body temperature, so much so that a system can fail to match two scans of the same iris taken under different conditions.
"It's not an exact science," says Perry. "People look at biometrics as being a total solution to all their problems, but it's only part of the solution."

I've found what I consider a brilliant critical appraisal of biometrics courtesy of the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation). As with a lot of science - certainly more than we're led to believe - biometrics are about probabilities rather than certainties; specifically the probabilities of false accepts (someone incorrectly identified as someone else) and false rejects (a failure to correctly identify someone). You can "tune" a biometrics system so that it tends to over-accept or over-reject, and for a system to be even reasonably effective, that's exactly what you need to do. After all, a mere 1% error rate spread over the entire population of the country makes for a lot of people who will be identified incorrectly or be plain unidentifiable. This means that you must have a clear idea of how exactly a biometrics system will be used so you can tune it correctly.

So how the hell do you do that with something as generalised, wooly and Hydra-headed as the UK Government's proposed ID Register? I suggest it simply can't be done. One size can never fit all.

But - I'll bet that the proposed system, should it ever be created, will be tuned towards a higher "false accept" rate. That way the system is less likely to let a bad guy or gal slip past. Sure there's a much higher number of innocent people drawn into the same net and potentially hauled over the coals, but better safe than sorry, eh? And the Government clearly believes we value safety over freedom any day, as witness other poorly considered and rushed Anti-Terrorist Legislation . You can't argue with the fact that New Labour still won the election straight after pushing that legislation through.

Anyway, my conclusion is that despite wanting some kind of ID Register, I would rather eat cold sick than accept an ID system implemented by a centralisation-mad government that is consistently driven by fear, and that takes the opinions of public servants (e.g. police) more seriously than those of the public itself. That's a recipe for an oppressive and powerful authoritarian state, not for a proud country in which individuality and certain fundamental freedoms are cherished.

If you feel the same way, you really should Act.

19th July: Very amusing vision of the future of ID cards found in the Rockall Times. Highly recommended!

22 June 2005

Holesome Snack

Today at lunchtime my mate John Williams (who, incidentally, has some great music on his website - Nighthealing is especially recommended) noted the ingredients of his Ham & Swiss Cheese Bagel with some amusement. Because I didn't believe him when he rang to tell me about it, he took a snap with his moby and emailed it over:

(Look closely!)

So cheers, Bagelman of Brighton, for bringing a chuckle to my day - and here's a free plug.

Actually the Bagelman site isn't fully functional yet - so here's a nice short review from the Argus to tell you a bit more.

21 June 2005

Rowling Home

Just a quick post to reference my favourite Flash site yet. In fact it's so good that it's enough to convert me from being a pure HTML freak to somebody who thinks Flash is - on occasion - very much better at being an interactive medium.

The site concerned is Harry Potter author J.K.Rowling's Official Site, and it's bloody marvellous. Well, certainly if you're even vaguely into Harry Potter it is. More like a little game and voyage of discovery than a standard website. And full of character, to boot.

I should say that I had been getting a suss on when the next book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and the new movie, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, were coming out, and what was likely to be the content.

Well, of course I know what was in the book for the latter, it being my current favourite by far.

12 June 2005

Corruption Kills Music

I had been about to follow up my rediscovered music post with one about (shock! horror!) brand new music that I'm getting into, to wit the Finn Brothers' latest album Everyone is Here and Coldplay's latest album X&Y (predictable tastes or what?).

Anyway, instead I've discovered a brand new bugbear, to wit (not to woo) Copy Protected Discs.
Look for the Sign of the Beast:
Copy Protection logo

Both the above albums were issuedby EMI who are pushing through Copy Protection on customers without any real warning and certainly no courtesy. This is despite the technology's obvious flaws, the main one being that these are not CDs, will not play on all kinds of CD player (car players especially, but not limited to them) and do not even qualify for the Compact Disc logo. Copy Protection effectively corrupts the Discs. What's more, some forms of Copy Protection will install a virus when first played on your PC - see this article in the Register, which also details how to disable/remove the malware.

Check out the Campaign for Digital Rights CD page for further details. Also check out the EMI Music Anti-Copy Control Information page for loads of useful tips and links on EMI's particular brand of Copy Control and how to fight it.

Basically, though, if you end up with one of these discs, you should return it to the supplier and either ask for it to be exchanged for a proper CD without copy protection or, failing that, get a full refund and try to obtain a non-Copy Protected version of the CD elsewhere. Note that online suppliers are under great pressure from the record companies not to advertise if discs are Copy Protected, so it's recommended that you email them first and ask. CD-WOW have been as helpful as they can be on this front, and have even suggested to me that I may be able to obtain non-Copy Protected versions of the CDs from retailers who source from within the UK as opposed to from the EU. I'll let you know if I have any joy on this front - but am not currently too optimistic.

I'm reminded of the Home Taping is Killing Music campaign of many years back; this campaign (in which EMI played a big part, I'm sure) proved to be Crying Wolf big time, and as noted in Forget the Spin, taping is not killing music :

The recording industry and its brethren have been crying wolf for years. At various times we have been told that the pianola was going to kill sales of sheet music, that radio was going to kill sales of records, that photocopying would kill sales of books, that the VCR would stop people going to movies, and that cheaper imported records would stop people buying Australian music.

Along the way we have been told that the use of the latest technology was immoral - everything from the photocopier to the cassette recorder to the VCR.

However, there is a very real danger that the attitude of people like EMI will push honest customers like yours truly in the direction of file sharers, copy protection breakers etc just so we can obtain what is rightfully ours - a CD that will play properly in all CD players, that we can rip to MP3 format so we can play it wherever we choose. And once we find how easy that is, it's only loyalty to the artists that keeps us buying the official products.

Some may even think the artists have sold out and no longer deserve our loyalty. It's obvious where that leads.

15th June: Well, no joy tracking down versions of the CDs without Copy Control. I reckon they're simply not to be found. However, I have managed to rip X&Y to my PC with very little trouble: simply needed to turn off Autorun to prevent the EMI (?) Player being installed, then opened up the CD in Windows Media Player, then ripped away. Don't have any track info, but can always add that retrospectively if required.

All this is covered and well described on The Register.

Pretty ineffective Copy Control, really, which suits me fine (and probably means I won't be returning my discs to CD-WOW - after all, it would be easy enough for me to generate my own proper CD now as and when I find situations where the "corrupted" disc won't play) (and, of course, it looks like no Copy Control, no music at all).

However, I'm still very irritated that EMI (et al) are unilaterally imposing new standards to the detriment of the medium and thereby restricting its accessibility. Not to mention lying to their customers in that, without Autorun off, a message come up when installing the disc saying that the Player has to be installed to listen to the music on a PC (not true!). And then installing crap and unnecessary software that in no way benefits the customer. Nor does it really prevent piracy at that.

But, if you check out the Register article above, we are suffering for the sins of our neighbours, such as the Italians. I'm almost inclined to translate this post into Italian. But then, I don't need to, do I?
All concerned will find out soon enough. And then EMI will need to issue a new version of Copy Control which will piss off a new bunch of customers. And so it goes.

07 June 2005

Land of the Setting Sun

We Europeans are the original Westerners, and have been for quite some time. That's because the name Europe is (apparently) derived from the Phoenician term for "where the sun sets" - as opposed to Asia, derived from the Phoenician for "where the sun rises".

I don't think the Phoenicians meant anything insulting by making us inhabitants of the land of the setting sun, but then again.

Sure enough the EU is a pretty crap institution, though I reckon that 's just because it tries to create a coherent unity out of a gloriously rich diversity - European Union could be seen as a contradiction in terms. So much for my thoughts. The view of the EU itself is that a new constitution will sort everything out.

I had mixed feelings about both France and the Netherlands declining to ratify the new constitution in recent referendums. On the one hand I thought "Yay! Nice one!" but on the other hand, I strongly suspected Blair and his cronies would use the No votes as an excuse to pull out of giving us Brits a referendum.

And what do you know? That's exactly what happened, courtesy of my old mate Jack Straw.

Why is that a problem? Simply because our government continues to stand by the principles of the new constitution (a good summary of the constitution here, courtesy of the BBC), which probably means that there will be a variety of back-door agreements which move us decisively towards a situation where we may as well vote Yes when we do get the referendum. The damage will already have been done, and commitments already made without our say so.

The government has plenty of form on that front. The reason that the new constitution is as Straw put it a while back, "a tidying up exercise" is because the EU already has more power over us than we would probably choose to give it. Check out the BBC summary of the constitution, linked above, to see what I mean.

A very telling point from Straw when he was arguing against a referendum around the same time as he declared the new constitution a tidying-up exercise:

Mr Straw argued that referendums are reserved for major constitutional changes - such as membership of the EC in 1975 or a future poll on joining the euro.

"Our default setting is that it is for elected parliaments to make decisions," he said.

But that is exactly the problem. There's a creeping death approach to constitutional change that consists of making a number of poisonous little agreements - it's the cumulative effect that kills.
After all, how did the EU come about as the officious bureaucratic monster it now is, when all we agreed to back in 1975 (well not me personally, as I was only 12) was a Common Market?

So, I would say that we want a referendum so we can do more than reject the new constitution; we also want to say No to further integration. But perhaps we want even more than that the chance to say No to the EU overall; to reject all the EU has become without our having any say in the matter, with the complicity of our own governments. Death to the monster!

Yes trade, Yes culture.

But, for me anyway, there it ends.

02 June 2005

Made of Stone

I've been on a bit of a voyage of rediscovery for the last year, due primarily to having to drive 40-odd miles to work. That's meant that I've needed music, and it didn't take long before I'd wandered away from the tried and trusted into the old and rather unappreciated (sounds familiar).

Anyway, perhaps due to my being in a more receptive state, some of the old CDs have undergone an amazing resurrection whereby I enjoy them even more than - shock! horror! - new CDs.

A case in point, and what got me writing, is the Stone Roses' album Second Coming.

Before I go any further I must mention that, like many other people, I think the Stone Roses' eponymous first album is an all-time classic, and would definitely place it well into my top 5 albums of all time. And what's more, unlike many others [smug mode] I can claim to have appreciated how good it was at the time it came out (1989) rather than a few years later when fashion caught up with the band. And here I have to lay great respects upon a little shop in Harrow called Jamming with Edward. I bought the album from there simply because I greatly admired Steve the owner's taste and it was plain to see on the shelves. I'd never even heard the Stone Roses before. But what an album! It was everything that music hadn't been for much too long, like waking up from a murky dream. I am the Resurrection, indeed (which is itself well into my top 5 tracks of all time).

I suppose it was inevitable that anything the band did afterwards would be a let-down by comparison, especially when it came more than 5 years (!) after the first album. A lot can change in that time. And yes, it seemed it was mostly a let-down. The notable exception was the track Love Spreads, which is arguably the closest in spirit to the band's first album.

But as I've been listening to Second Coming in the last month or so, other tracks have emerged as classics.
First it was Breaking into Heaven... (for a bit)
Then it was Driving South... (even if it does sound quite similar to Love Spreads)
Then it was Tightrope... (for quite a bit longer, and I took the time to work it our on guitar)
Then it was Daybreak... and I'm still cooking on that one, but it's been joined going round and round in my head by Begging You.

So - suddenly I have a new favourite album that's really just a dusty old album listened to with new ears.

As a good friend once said (and do get in touch if you're reading this, Paul):
A change in attitude refreshes the parts a change in lifestyle cannot reach.

I'll say Aye to that one.