Monday, February 27, 2006

A Prediction On ID Cards

A poll confirms that Brits are cynical about ID cards, confirming the Wisdom Of Crowds. Once the Brit government figures this out too, expect ID cards to degrade to a basic photo ID.

The poll:
People doubt whether cards will materially assist in the war on terror and clearly think that a national scheme will be shot full of holes. Yet a small majority, 52 per cent, persist in saying that the cards should be brought in.That small majority will disappear when Brits realize how the system will actually work.
From 2008, people applying for or renewing passports will be get ID cards as well, so let's start with the Brit passport system. Currently, passports are issued by mail - you send in a form, appending original birth and marriage certificates, and photos notarized by a member of one of 43 professions, ranging from accountants through journalists to opticians.

If this system is continued for ID cards, they'll have little value, but a more robust system will be a logistical nightmare and unaffordable. That's because ID cards need a biometric identifier on them - there's a good summary of options for biometrics here and in the referenced report.

To continue using the passport system and postal applications, the ID card biometric will have to be a photo, with identification through face recognition software. That's because - provided they're authenticated - photos can be sent through the mail so citizens won't all have to travel to have their biometrics taken (as they must for retinal scans, fingerprints etc). Photos are acceptable to most people, it's easy to image people - for example when they visit their doctor or claim a state benefit, and of course everybody has a face. But there are huge negatives - faces change over time, recognition performance is poor (depends on lighting, camera quality, expression), and faces can be fairly easily modified.

And the ID application system itself would be as easy to compromise as the current passport system - all you need is a dodgy journalist or optician (for example) to authenticate a photo of somebody other than the applicant - bin Laden for example - and he gets a Brit ID card as well as a passport.

The only way around this is to use better biometrics - iris recognition is good - and combine that with a face-to-face interview that positively verifies the applicant. But for this to work, the applicant has to travel to a secure facility where their biometrics can be taken, and their identity confirmed by an interview. Here's what that might cost.

Assume that the ID card has to be renewed every 5 years (to cater for biometric change with age), that all 60 million Brits have to have one, and that each application involves 8 hours travel, waiting and interviewing by the applicant (based on US Green Card experience), plus 30 minutes by the interviewer plus 90 minutes support (data input, validation), giving a total of 10 person-hours. Double that to 20 hours to allow for inefficiency (this is a government department!). At 12 million applications every year, that's 240 million person-hours, which at £15/hour is £3.6 billion. Double that to get gross costs - travel, overheads, securing staff against kidnap, etc, and we have an annual cost of over £7 billion. Finally add depreciated capital and setup costs of £3 billion/year (£17 billion deprecated over 5 years), and the running cost is £10 billion/year.

Blair or his successor can't live with this cost - it's a third of the entire of the Brit defense budget. Not to mention the enormous political backlash from forcing 20% of the nation, kids included, to travel to the national ID center very year.

So, I'd expect the ID card to end up much like the current passport, as are ID cards in the rest of Europe. It won't stop visitors daft enough to come to the UK to use the NHS, since most of them are either EU (entitled) or legal or illegal immigrants (protected). It won't stop professional criminals, who'll be able to fake cards with their own pictures for a very modest sum. And it won't stop terrorists, who'll pose as tourists. It won't cut down on illegal immigration, since the primary problem is that the Brit legal system won't deport illegals.

But it will cut down on entitlement fraud by petty criminals, at least only until an entrepreneurial crook decides to exploit this mass market...