Collar the lot of us! Blair adds whole UK to police suspect list

You're on an identity parade. Forever.

The National Identity Register will allow police to add the entire adult population of the UK to their suspect list, giving them the opportunity to check fingerprints left at scenes of crime against those collected from ID card and passport applicants, says Tony Blair. Nor are fingerprints in other EU countries necessarily safe - the introduction of biometric technology, he adds, will "improve the flow of information between countries on the identity of offenders.

Blair made the pledge to collar the lot of us, and some, as part of a rag-bag of warmed-over, half-baked, misleading, and just plain untrue claims issued in an email to the near-28,000 signatories of the Downing Street petition calling for the scrapping of the ID card scheme. The notion of the police having access to the NIR fingerprint data in order to tackle unsolved crime is not entirely new (the Home Office document Identity Cards Scheme - Benefits Overview tentatively suggested this could happen a couple of years back), but it's not something that has previously been pushed by senior ministers.*

Characteristically, Blair and his delusional wonks find themselves unable to put forward this unfeasible scheme without falsifying the data. Blair talks of "fingerprints found at the scene of some 900,000 unsolved crimes", when actually the 900,000 is the total of crime-scene marks found at scenes of unsolved crimes. That means the total number of crimes covered will be lower, and indistinct prints together with the headache of matching scene-of-crime prints to NIR prints reduce the number further.

And how would they do it, anyway? Fingerprints taken for biometric ID systems aren't particularly compatible with the fingerprint systems historically used in criminal justice systems. The point of an ID fingerprint system is primarily to confirm the identity of a known individual, comparing a standard format fingerprint previously gathered with a real fingerprint presented in a standard way.

Criminal justice, on the other hand, needs to be able to deal with partial fingerprints and indistinct marks, and to have systems in place to support one to many searches. This explains the historical use of 'rolled' prints, which record a greater area of print. The kind of print recorded by criminal justice systems has been changing, but it clearly isn't possible to get burglars to leave prints under controlled conditions.

Automated one to many searches of the NIR for the purposes of identifying individuals are possible (necessary, in that checking your ID against the NIR is one of things it says on the tin), but they're far less feasible when it comes to scene of crime marks. Parts of this process can be automated to some extent, but the machines will miss some and throw up many false matches, so human expertise of the sort already used by police will be necessary, on a far larger scale. You'll possibly also have noted that even the inflated figure of 900,000 for unsolved crimes seems rather low - yes that's right, it's by no means standard practice for police to send round the fingerprint squad to scenes of crime.

Logically, in Blair's Wonderworld of Criminal Justice, police showing up at scenes of crime will as a matter of course scan it (um, with what?) for prints, and then compare the images with the NIR in real time (er, how?) in order to discover... Yes, that this particular set of fuzzy images unearthed at Anwar's Doughnut Bar might have been left by any one of several thousand of the 60 million people on the NIR. The Boys in Blue are going to love this gear, which doesn't even exist yet (mobile fingerprint readers do, but these are for taking prints off real people).

We shouldn't leave this demented scheme without noting that the production of matches that will pass muster in a court of law will still require the presence of the traditional fingerprint squad at the scene of the crime. And if police do start to make routine automated checks at scenes of crime then we're going to need a lot more traditional squads to chase down the leads, so more specialists would be needed at this end of the process as well.

Petition signatories are unlikely to be convinced by this or any of the other claims made in the Blair email. No2ID debunks these here, and National Coordinator Phil Booth comments: "The PM's claims on this subject are not exactly lies, so much as fact-free. Endlessly repeating a fabrication doesn't make it real, Mr Blair."

The repetition of the claim that identity fraud costs £1.7bn annually is however particularly worth noting. The £1.7bn figure has, as No2ID points out, been discredited by Andrew Gilligan and Andy McCue of Silicon, and is itself based on the Cabinet Office's 2002 study which we analysed here.

Bear in mind that the £1.7bn simply tags a few numbers onto the 2002 ones, and that the claim that it was "a one-off exercise using the same methodology as the 2002 Cabinet Office Study" is wildly misleading. The 2002 study itself did little more than take a guess at the order of magnitude of ID fraud, and at how ID fraud might be defined (ID theft? ID fraud? ID-related crime? Credit card theft? Who knows?).

One thing that was clear from the 2002 study was that further work would be needed to provide a clear definition of what we mean by ID fraud, and consequently take us closer to making a realistic estimate of what it might cost. The Government was so interested in this in 2002 that it conducted no further studies, and didn't even bother to update and expand the data contained in the 2002 report. It did say "£1.3bn" a lot until 2006, when it chucked some more numbers into the pile of aging stats and started saying "£1.7bn" instead. And there they go again. "Yours sincerely, Tony Blair", sic. ®

* Claiming surprise in response to journalists' questions earlier today, the Prime Minister's Official Spokesperson said the fingerprint trawl (which is not a trawl, honest) had previously been referred to in several places. These included the Identity Cards Act 2006 itself, and an article 'written by' Tony Blair in the Telegraph in November 2006.

The reference in the Act appears, we think, under Registration in section 4, where registrable facts about individuals may be verified in the public interest, with "the interests of national security", and "prevention or detection of crime" being the defined areas of public interest that would appear to be relevant in this instance. We've no idea how we could have missed it.

The Telegraph piece, according to the PMOS, "explicitly discussed precisely what he said in response to the e-petition on ID cards". Which indeed it did. Which we suppose just goes to show that nobody at all, not even Telegraph journalists, read articles 'by' Tony Blair in the Telegraph. Reading it now, however, it does look rather like Tony's minions just grabbed the old text, chopped out the wackier stuff about DNA, CCTV and fingerprint verified payments, and bunged it out to all the ID card protestors. Nice to see they put such thought into interacting with the electorate on the Electronic Highway...

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