19 October, 2005
Hi-tech equipment could misidentify one in 1,000 people, say experts
By Marie Woolf, Francis Elliott and Sophie Goodchild
The Indpeendent on Sunday, 16 October 2005
One in 1,000 people could be inaccurately identified by the hi-tech scans
being planned for national ID cards, experts have warned.
The Government is planning to use face, iris and fingerprint scans to identify
people on ID cards. But studies have found that being scanned in the wrong
type of light or in shadow could lead to an inaccurate ID, because biometric
technology is flawed.
Internal reports for the Government warned that manual labourers whose
fingertips are worn or nicked, could find their fingerprints are not
recognised. Men who go bald risk being identified as someone else, experts
say. Pianists, guitarists and typists – whose fingerprints can be worn down –
could also face inaccurate readings.
Government trials have found that the biometrics of black, elderly and
disabled people have a higher chance of being incorrectly matched against
their true ID. People with eye problems also have a relatively high chance of
Fingerprint systems can make errors in the identification of one in 100,000
people, while facial recognition scans have falsely identified one in 1,000
Qinetiq, the defence technology company that advises the Government, has
warned that biometrics now being used to identify people on a small scale –
such as people entering football grounds, office buildings or shopping malls
– – may be insufficient for a national database of up to 64 million people.
The company, which develops and assesses biometrics, says urgent development
work needs to be done before ID cards are rolled out in 2008. It said a
biometric scan in the United States failed because it concluded a man who
went bald and had a wrinkled forehead had an upside-down face.
On Tuesday, the Government is expected to face a rebellion by MPs when the
Commons votes on the ID cards Bill. Around 20 Labour MPs are expected to vote
with the Tories and Liberal Democrats against the proposals.
Tomorrow, the Government will hold a “road-show” in the Home Office to
demonstrate that the biometric scans work. Sources close to Charles Clarke,
the Home Secretary, said the tour of the technology around the country had
found little public resistance to biometrics. The Government believes that
using a combination of three scans will cut down the risk of inaccurate
An internal government report, prepared for the Home Office by the consultants
Amtec, warned in May 2003 that “no biometric system can ever be 100 per cent
accurate”. The study identified serious flaws in the technology and said they
may not be accepted by the population.
“All biometrics will face some acceptance problems to some degree. Some of the
general population do not have the body part (or sufficient quality of the
body part) required for measuring any one biometric except face,” he said.
“Some face-recognition techniques are exposed to instability, in particular
because of some people’s voluntary change of appearance, the effects of
ageing, and differences in illumination between environments.”
Why the bald and pianists may fail test
* A bald man with a wrinkled forehead fooled the technology into thinking his
face was upside down.
* Manual labourers, pianists, guitarists and people who type a lot can fail
scans because their fingerprints are worn down.
* Disabled people have a higher than normal rate of misidentification, as do
the elderly and black people.
* People with eye problems more often fail iris scans.
* Accident victims risk failing biometric scans if their physical
characteristics change; identical twins can be muddled up because they look
* Being photographed then scanned in a different light can cause
19 October, 2005
Fury over ‘attack on liberties’ as Newcastle pioneers a tracking scheme that could catch on
Sunday October 16, 2005
A network of hi-tech cameras capable of tracking the movements of every car could become a feature of cities across Britain. The North East is set to become the first region to introduce a controversial system which automatically records information about every vehicle passing through Newcastle and the surrounding area.
The scheme, which has provoked a heated debate with critics saying it smacks of Big Brother tactics and raises questions about individual freedom, could give a glimpse into the future of driving in Britain.
Under the plans, automatic number plate recognition cameras, similar to those now used by police to trace the 8.5 million cars which are untaxed, uninsured or suspected to be involved in criminal or terrorist activity, would be situated throughout Tyne and Wear and administered by the local council. Other local authorities are understood to be considering introducing similar systems.
The aim of the £1million Newcastle scheme, unveiled last week, is to gather information about the frequency and distance of journeys made by drivers in the area and to explore the possibility of road user charging.
‘When a car enters the network, the camera records the number plate, and then when the car shows up somewhere else on the network it cancels itself out,’ said Greg Stone, the council’s executive member for transport. ‘It means we can get a picture of how many people are doing very short journeys.’
He insisted identifying information on motorists would not be stored. ‘We are not tracking identity. We are simply tracking vehicles to establish journey patterns.’
But critics of congestion charging warned a number-plate logging system was a step closer to a fully-fledged road-pricing network. They also expressed concerns about infringements of individual privacy.
Martin Callanan, the MEP for North East England, said there were huge implications for civil liberties: ‘This is a huge intrusion by the state into people’s everyday lives, and it is all being done by stealth.
‘My main concern is that this system is, in effect, recording where everybody has been in their car in Tyneside at any time of the day or night. This information will be stored on a local council computer, and I fear we are a short step away from when that is linked to the DVLA system and the council will know where every individual person is, day or night. There are huge civil liberty implications.’
His concerns were echoed by many drivers in the city. George Naisbitt, the managing director of a taxi company, said politicians were ‘hell-bent’ on driving people out of their cars and on to public transport.
‘They are making it as difficult as possible for drivers to get into the town. The government is trying desperately to get the British public to give up their cars. But I don’t think they realise it is a task akin to un-inventing the wheel. They are living on cloud-cuckoo land if they think people are going to leave their cars at home and stand in a queue for a bus or a train or a metro that does not come on time,’ said Naisbitt.
He had no problem with police CCTV cameras which ringed the city centre. ‘They serve a useful purpose: fighting and tackling crime. But this new scheme is just about monitoring private individuals in their cars.’
Neil Quinn, 23, a metallurgist, said he objected to the idea of his movements being monitored: ‘I feel you can’t do anything on the road without people knowing about it. It feels like an invasion of privacy. You get into your car to get away from things.’
Despite their concerns, motoring organisations said it was inevitable that more CCTV cameras would crop up across Britain in the future.
Kevin Delaney, an RAC road safety adviser, said there would be much more monitoring and control of drivers in the years ahead.
‘Much of it will be benign. Drivers are prepared to trade a bit of privacy to be able to know the shortest route from A to B. The idea of all these hi-tech cameras and such close monitoring takes a bit of getting used to. In 20 or 30 years, people will wake up and book a slot on the M1. This monitoring system is the first step.’
6 October, 2005
British Journal of Photography
5 October 2005
Walter Wolfgang wasn’t the only Labour Party conference visitor to make an unexpected exit last week. Diane Smyth tells why photographers staged their own walkout
Accredited photographers at last week’s Labour Party conference were forced to take direct action to ensure that all 47 got access to the floor during the Prime Minister’s speech.
The photographers, most of whom had applied for accreditation months before the conference, were told four hours before the speech that only 30 floor passes would be handed out for Tony Blair’s slot, and no access would be given to the balcony in the conference room. The photographers were invited to put their names on a list in the pressroom, but when the passes were handed out they found that the 17 excluded were freelancers and local press photographers.
‘When I went up to get my pass, I was told, “if you’re name’s not on the list, you’re not getting in”,’ Richard Pohle told BJP. ‘Then when I said I was with The Times, I was told that we would only get one (between two photographers). It kept changing and changing, until eventually they would only let the big publications in and people working on papers like the Brighton Argus were left out.’
Unhappy with what they saw as this unfair distribution of passes, the photographers decided to refuse to take any photographs at all unless everyone got passes. Getty Images staffer Peter Macdiarmid went into the conference hall to get the photographers then shooting Home Secretary Charles Clarke’s speech, and the mass walk-out that ensued forced a meeting between the photographers, the Labour Party press office and the conference floor manager.
‘All the photographers came out of the back of the conference centre and we were saying that we would all put our cameras on the floor together and have a photograph of us with our cameras down,’ says Daily Telegraph photographer Eddie Mulholland. ‘Then a press officer came out and said, “Okay, everyone can have access to the floor and balcony”.’
‘Negotiating was getting us nowhere so all the photographers got together,’ says Macdiarmid. ‘It was amazing to see everyone stick together. It doesn’t always happen, but everyone was quite happy with the situation.’
The photographers conceded that the floor was busy for Blair’s speech, but were not convinced by suggestions that the party press office needed to restrict passes for health and safety reasons.
‘We were all allowed on the floor to photograph Gordon Brown the day before,’ pointed out Macdiarmid. ‘There were slightly more photographers on the floor for Blair and it was tight but we managed. We’re used to working in close quarters.’
Macdiarmid added that if space were restricted, it would have been fairer to ensure that at least one photographer from each paper had a pass, instead of giving national papers all the passes they wanted at the expense of freelancers and local newspaper photographers. And John Toner, freelance organiser at the National Union of Journalists, put it more starkly still, stating: ‘There is no justification – if they are short on space, they need a bigger venue.
‘It’s scandalous,’ he added. ‘We will be taking the issue up with the Labour party as soon as we can. We want to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.’
BJP contacted the Labour Party conference for comment, but none was forthcoming as the magazine went to press.
– Meanwhile, outside the conference, police officers stopped both Austin Mitchell, Labour MP and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Photography Group, and Jeff Moore, chairman of the British Press Photographers’ Association, from taking pictures.
Mitchell’s photographs of the conference were deleted from his camera altogether, while Moore was given a stop and search notice. ‘I wasn’t actually trying to take any photographs, I was just standing outside the conference centre with my camera,’ says Moore. ‘A police officer came up to me and said: “You’re not allowed to take any pictures here. Tony Blair doesn’t like pictures being taken of the conference in progress or of the Grand Hotel.” ‘I replied: “Oh really, which law is that under?” She didn’t admit she was wrong, and she eventually gave me a stop and search form, giving her grounds for interview as “taking photographs of the conference” – which I wasn’t.
‘The BPPA has regular meetings with Bob Cox, the Met’s chief press officer about better press/police relations. Things were going well until 07 July, but they are now as bad as I have ever seen them.’
3 October, 2005
3 October, 2005
Privacy groups want the law changed to stop Google using, or divulging to outside agencies, the vast amount of personal data it has access to. By Conal Walsh
Sunday October 2, 2005
Google took a further step away from its folksy image when it hired its first professional lobbyist in Washington earlier this year. But it turned out to be a timely move. The world’s biggest search engine has been under attack on many fronts in 2005 – and its activities have spawned a cottage industry of Google critics, who complain above all that the company’s dramatic rise to prominence is a threat to our privacy.
Much protest focuses on the company’s use of ‘cookies’ – pieces of programming code – which Google plants on your computer’s hard drive when you use its service.
The cookies enable Google to keep a record of your web-searching history. They don’t expire until 2038, meaning that potentially sensitive information on your interests and peccadilloes could be stored for upwards of 30 years. It is sobering to think what fraudsters, identity thieves, blackmailers or government snoopers could do with this information if they got access to it.
Privacy groups are up in arms. ‘We need to re-evaluate the role of big search engines, email portals, and all the rest of it,’ says Daniel Brandt, of the website Google Watch.
‘They all track everything. Google was the first to do it, arrogantly and without any apologies; now everyone assumes that if Google does it, they can do it too.’
Lauren Weinstein, founder of the US-based People for Internet Responsibility, says out-of-date privacy laws fail to capture the information-gathering powers of youthful but powerful new media companies.
‘The relevant laws are generally so weak – if they exist at all – that it’s difficult to file complaints when you can’t find out what data they’re keeping and how they are using it,’ says Weinstein.
Google says these fears are unfounded, that it respects privacy and keeps strictly within relevant privacy laws. Personal data are logged on computer files but ‘no humans’ access it, says the company; safeguards are in place to prevent employees from examining traffic data without special permission from senior managers. Nor is personal information shared with outsiders. All Google’s records are impenetrable to hackers.
Besides, say Google devotees, open access and the empowerment of the individual are central to the whole philosophy of the company; it would never seek to misuse or betray its users’ secrets.
Life, though, can be complicated. In repressive countries such as China, Google and other portals have little choice but to accommodate the authorities, which regularly censor the internet and spy on users.
In the US, Google has declined to say how often it responds to requests for information from America’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies. And there are concerns that what Google is building with its data-retention operation is a vast marketing database, which one day could be exploited ruthlessly.
Simmering discontent turned into open confrontation earlier this year when Google launched Gmail, a free email service designed to compete with Yahoo and Microsoft’s Hotmail.
To ordinary punters, the great advantage of Gmail was the enormous two gigabytes of storage space it offered, enabling users to keep all their old messages. But Google planned to make the service pay by scanning customers’ emails for keywords in order to send them targeted advertisements – a flagrant breach of privacy, according to opponents.
The Consumer Federation of America demanded that Google rethink the scheme, while California politician Liz Figueroa called for changes in the law to protect users’ ‘most intimate and private email thoughts’. The London-based campaigners Privacy International filed complaints with data protection agencies in several countries, including Britain.
The UK Information Commissioner took no action after consulting with Google, but campaigners argue that government bodies operating with a small staff and obsolete laws are no match for a technology superpower like Google, which is expanding at an almost exponential rate and continues to innovate in its use of personal data.
In claims denied by Google, Privacy International’s Simon Davies asserts that there is ‘an absence of contractual commitment to the security of data’ and ‘fundamental problems in achieving lawful customer consent’.
For now, campaigners may have to console themselves with a story of the biter bit. Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, was reportedly enraged this month when an online newspaper published his address and other personal details – having found them on Google.
3 October, 2005
Google not only gathers vast amounts of personal data, it aspires to global domination – and that’s creepy, writes John Naughton
Sunday October 2, 2005
A few months ago Bill Gates let slip an interesting thought about Google in an interview. It reminded him, he said, of Microsoft in its honeymoon period – ie. the decade 1985-95. This is the first time in recorded history that Gates has dignified a competitor by actually naming it in public: generally, he speaks only in paranoid generalities. But the Microsoft chairman knows trouble when he sees it, and Google does indeed pose a long-term threat to his profitable monopoly.
That’s par for the course in the capitalist jungle. A more important question is whether Google spells trouble for the rest of us in the long run. And the answer to that could well be yes.
To understand why, we need to look back. It may be hard to credit it now, but Microsoft was once a cheeky start-up, run by college dropouts with long hair and a penchant for fast cars. It was founded at a time when the fledgling personal computer business was a labyrinth of incompatible hardware and software systems. In 1981, IBM effectively defined a de-facto hardware standard; and its erstwhile partner Microsoft defined the software standard by providing the operating system for the new, accountant-friendly IBM PC. Thus was order brought to an unruly industry. And thus was the foundation laid of Microsoft’s subsequent prosperity – and its monopoly on desktop software.
We all know the rest of the story. Microsoft has grown and grown, to the point where its monopoly lock on desktop software makes it impossible for an upstart to supplant it: the world’s organisations are so locked into the Microsoft Way that they cannot contemplate moving to a different operating system, even if it is cheaper or technically superior.
Yet, strangely, it would be wrong to conclude from this that Microsoft’s position is unassailable. Granted, it has a stranglehold on the PC platform, and anyone who tries to compete on that territory is doomed to lose. The significance of Google’s challenge is that it hasn’t chosen to fight on that ground. Instead, it seeks to make the platform irrelevant.
And it’s doing it. Here’s an illustration. Ask any random audience of computer users the following questions. Who uses Microsoft software? (All hands go up.) Who uses open source software? (No hands.) Who uses Google? (All hands go up). ‘Well’, you say, ‘that’s a funny thing because you’re all users of open source software: Google runs on Linux.’ After the rueful laughter has died away, ponder on what that means. People want a particular computing service (in this case search), and don’t really care what platform it’s delivered on.
Since its inception in 1999, Google has focused almost exclusively on providing services that are platform-independent in this way. Its search engine can be accessed from any browser. Ditto Google Groups, Google Images, Google News, Froogle, Blogger, Google Mail, Google Talk and Google Maps. A few of its offerings (notably Google Earth, Desktop Search and Picasa, a neat program for handling and organising digital photographs) are written specifically to run under Microsoft Windows, but the most heavily used services are all independent of operating systems and hardware. The company has taken Scott McNealy’s aphorism – ‘the network is the computer’ – and turned it into reality.
All of which is bad news for Mr Gates, whose prosperity is based on the proposition that the platform is the computer. But is it good news for the rest of us? Google’s most intensively used services are accessed via the net, so all the data involved flows through Google’s servers. And since these data are often fragments of intensely personal information – email, web clickstreams, instant messages, VoIP conversations – a single company is in a position to know more about each one of us than anyone would have thought possible even a decade ago.
Consider Gmail, Google’s web-mail service. This provides two gigabytes of storage to each subscriber – enough to ensure that you never again have to delete a message. The flipside is that your messages reside forever on a Google server. What’s more, Gmail is free because it is funded by advertising: Google’s software scans every email, identifies key phrases, and puts what it regards as relevant ads on the right-hand side of the screen.
If you think that’s creepy, you’re right. Google’s response is that the messages aren’t actually ‘read’, that it’s just a process akin to the one in which email messages are scanned by spam-blocking software. But that’s disingenuous, because the ads selected for display are logged (they have to be, so that advertisers can be billed) and those logs will inevitably reveal something of the context, if not the content, of the scanned messages. Anyone who uses Gmail is therefore sacrificing a degree of privacy compared with someone who uses a conventional email service. That’s why privacy and civil liberties groups have attacked Gmail on the grounds that it violates the trust of email service users – in particular non-Gmail users who send messages to Gmail subscribers. They point out that scanning creates lower expectations of privacy in the email medium and so establishes a potentially dangerous precedent.
Google’s apparently unstoppable momentum is beginning to raise alarm bells across an industry that hitherto admired the company’s cheeky, upstart ethos and the brilliance of its technology. This, after all, was an outfit that declared in its prospectus that its motto would be ‘Don’t do evil’. The implicit message from the co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, was: ‘We’re basically good guys. You can trust us.’ But that was then, and this is now, when Google has evolved into a multi-billion dollar corporation with aspirations to global domination. Its corporate mission, remember, is ‘to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful’. And when these guys say ‘world’, they mean it.
So there’s a strong possibility that Google will indeed turn out to be Bill Gates’s worst nightmare, transforming his grip on the PC platform into a wasting asset. But the corollary of that is a world in which millions – perhaps billions – of people will become users of Google services, and that the company will become custodians of their most intimate data. The day will come when Google knows more about each of us than we realise. And knowledge is power.
Should we trust a US corporation with it? You only have to ask the question to know the answer.
Ten things you didn’t know about Google
1 It’s a calculator. Type ’25 miles in kilometres’ (without the quotes) into the search box and see what happens.
2 It can be manipulated to produce desired results. Try typing ‘miserable failure’ (without the quotes) and see what happens. This is called Googlebombing.
3 Googlewhacking is a game where you have to think of a single word which, when typed into the search box, will produce just a single ‘hit’.
4 How many pages does Google index? Answer: nobody knows. Google used to publish a number under the search box (when last seen it was over 8 billion) but it has stopped doing that – possibly because Yahoo is now claiming to index 20 billion pages.
5 It does really useful online maps of the UK. Go to maps.google.co.uk. And you can search for restaurants, churches, bars or schools just by typing the appropriate term (e.g. ‘restaurants in Bedford’) in the search box.
6 Google’s two co-founders are each worth about $7 billion. They are just 32 years old.
7 If you use Google’s webmail, the messages reside forever on a Google server.
8 Google’s power means that it knows more about each of us than any other internet search engine.
9 Google’s Gmail software scans every email, identifies key phrases, and puts what it regards as relevant ads on the right-hand side of the screen.
10 Its services, such as Google Images, Google News, Froogle, Blogger, Google Mail and Google Maps can be accessed from any browser.