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Swings and roundabouts

There was a wonderful cartoon that cycled frequently around computer science departments in the pre-Internet 1970s - I still have my paper copy - that graphically illustrated the process by which IT systems get specified, designed, and built, and showed precisely why and how far they failed the user's inner image of what it was going to be. There is a scan here. The senior analyst wanted to make sure no one could possibly get hurt; the sponsor wanted a pretty design; the programmers, confused by contradictory input, wrote something that didn't work; and the installation was hideously broken.

Translate this into the UK's national ID card. Consumers, Sir James Crosby wrote in March (PDF)want identity assurance. That is, they - or rather, we - want to know that we're dealing with our real bank rather than a fraud. We want to know that the thief rooting through our garbage can't use any details he finds on discarded utility bills to impersonate us, change our address with our bank, clean out our accounts, and take out 23 new credit cards in our name before embarking on a wild spending spree leaving us to foot the bill. And we want to know that if all that ghastliness happens to us we will have an accessible and manageable way to fix it.

We want to swing lazily on the old tire and enjoy the view.

We are the users with the seemingly simple but in reality unobtainable fantasy.

The government, however - the project sponsor - wants the three-tiered design that barely works because of all the additional elements in the design but looks incredibly impressive. ("Be the envy of other major governments," I feel sure the project brochure says.) In the government's view, they are the users and we are the database objects.

Crosby nails this gap when he draws the distinction between ID assurance and ID management:

The expression 'ID management' suggests data sharing and database consolidation, concepts which principally serve the interests of the owner of the database, for example, the Government or the banks. Whereas we think of "ID assurance" as a consumer-led concept, a process that meets an important consumer need without necessarily providing any spin-off benefits to the owner of any database.

This distinction is fundamental. An ID system built primarily to deliver high levels of assurance for consumers and to command their trust has little in common with one inspired mainly by the ambitions of its owner. In the case of the former, consumers will extend use both across the population and in terms of applications such as travel and banking. While almost inevitably the opposite is true for systems principally designed to save costs and to transfer or share data.

As writer and software engineer Ellen Ullman wrote in her book Close to the Machine, databases infect their owners, who may start with good intentions but are ineluctibly drawn to surveillance.

So far, the government pushing the ID card seems to believe that it can impose anything it likes and if it means the tree collapses with the user on the swing, well, that's something that can be ironed out later. Crosby, however, points out that for the scheme to achieve any of the government's national security goals it must get mass take-up. "Thus," he writes, "even the achievement of security objectives relies on consumers' active participation."

This week, a similarly damning assessment of the scheme was released by the Independent Scheme Assurance Panel (PDF) (you may find it easier to read this clean translation - scroll down to policywatcher's May 8 posting). The gist: the government is completely incompetent at handling data, and creating massive databases will, as a result, destroy public trust in it and all its systems.

Of course, the government is in a position to compel registration, as it's begun doing with groups who can't argue back, like foreigners, and proposes doing for employees in "sensitive roles or locations, such as airports". But one of the key indicators of how little its scheme has to do with the actual needs and desires of the public is the list of questions it's asking in the current consultation on ID cards, which focus almost entirely on how to get people to love, or at least apply for, the card. To be sure, the consultation document pays lip service to accepting comments on any ID card-related topic, but the consultation is specifically about the "delivery scheme".

This is the kind of consultation where we're really damned if we do and damned if we don't. Submit comments on, for example, how best to "encourage" young people to sign up ("Views are invited particularly from young people on the best way of rolling out identity cards to them") without saying how little you like the government asking how best to market its unloved policy to vulnerable groups and when the responses are eventually released the government can say there are now no objectors to the scheme. Submit comments to the effect that the whole National Identity scheme is poorly conceived and inappropriate, and anything else you say is likely to be ignored on the grounds that they've heard all that and it's irrelevant to the present consultation. Comments are due by June 30.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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