PS Consultants - ideas & solutions

Halt, who goes there..?
December  2001 

One of the many issues arising from the September 11th events in the USA has been the matter of better managing and tracking of identity. As readers of Shopper will realise, technology provides a raft of solutions that are all vastly better than what we have at present – which now amounts to nothing at all – but we all know how fast governments and politicians seem able to act when it comes to the intelligent deployment of new technology.  Unless, of course, the deployment in question concerns weapons of mass destruction that are effectively marketed and promoted by their well-practised manufacturers, when no expense or effort is likely to be spared.

However, maybe the rules of the game were sufficiently altered by the willingness of the participants to top themselves in the process that even our dawdling government can be woken up to the rude new reality. All the knee-jerk legislation that our parliament can conjure up at moments like these is presently challenged to suggest an answer for dealing with determined folks who could probably hijack a plane using only a sharp pencil.

After all, when the hijacker slams that sharpened pencil through the ear and into the brain of a flight attendant, and then tells the Captain that he/she has semtex contained in their bowel, wrapped in a condom, and using an inductive detonator that can be a very simple a battery and coil  – is the captain likely to take a chance that this is Jeremy Beadle having a laugh?

That’s a tricky one, and none of the above scenario would be detected by any past present or proposed security measures.  So the only viable answer, from this time onwards, is to identify and root the maniacs out before they get anywhere near a plane. We may end up with all passengers having to strip, be X-rayed, passed through a pulsed magnetic field, and be required to don a basic “flight suit” before being allowed to board with no baggage of any sort. The bags themselves might have to be carried on separate and randomly chosen aircraft.

Reports that El-Al flights are picking up passengers because of the fearsome reputation of the hitherto efficacy of El-Al security suggests that market forces may well help drive this process along. Airlines declaring that they will only carry passengers of proven provenance will inevitably seem attractive than those willing to “take a chance”. So let’s get the old chestnut out of the way:-

“ID cards are an imposition on personal liberty”

Hmmm…. but isn’t allowing a “detectable suspect” to pass through security checks by virtue of the ineptitude of a “tolerant society” an affront to the personal liberty of others going peacefully about their business? I think it probably is. 

Soon after the ID card idea was mooted, the usual UK commentators declared that determined terrorists would find ways to forge ID cards? Really? Says who? A card with thumbprint, retina and voiceprint key – plus a pass phrase would take a fair bit of forging. The tricky part is always going to be the initial validity “check” where the card holder has to prove who they are.

A big problem (and nothing to do with technology) arises since, inevitably, those who will have the most difficulty proving who they are will come from the curiously untouchable ranks of our multicultural society.  Sorry folks, but freedom has many prices, and offending a few sensibilities will be one.  Now, does this mean that anyone without an approved ID card becomes a pariah and a non-person? In a country where suspects are innocent until proven guilty, that’s unlikely to be enforceable. Maybe the best way to sell this whole card notion to the nation is to attach tangible new benefits to carrying the card. More carrot than stick, please.

By allowing citizens to manage and own their “public” persona, they can then sell parts of this data to the big market and credit research companies like Experean that presently pay for collecting general statistics collected from commercial transactions when you fail to tick those boxes on the forms. 

So the fearsome ID card could become a national “loyalty card” – earning money and points; but if you choose not to become part of this scheme, then there will be an assumption that you have something to hide. Don’t blame the democratically elected government of this country, blame those responsible for funding international terror, so whilst you might have felt relatively secure watching from 3,000 miles as the World Trade Centre collapsed like a house of cards on September 11th, the inevitable consequences are only just starting to emerge.

Although the physical card will be the focus of emotion, the real issue is that this data has live on a central global reference database to be of any use. Would police forces be able to resist the opportunity to screen out every sort of petty criminal if the fingerprints were so easily accessible?  Inevitably, the scheme would eventually extend to DNA, and insurance companies would love to get at that.

I just wish that the next stage of thinking through the process of managing personal identity was not in the hands of a government that once bragged about the UK as “the best place in the world to do e-business”, and has let us slide to around number 15 on the list of connected nations in the space of a couple of years.

We do indeed live in interesting times.