Consult and communicate better, scientists tell government
15 August 2006
Concerns raised by Professor Angela Sasse (UCL Computer Science) about the government's approach to ID card technologies have been highlighted in a report published by the Science and Technology Committee.
As a professor of human-centred technology and a specialist advisor to the Home Office on ID cards for the past two years, Professor Sasse gave evidence in May to the Science and Technology Committee, which is investigating the way the government uses scientific advice in developing policies.
Professor Sasse aired a number of concerns about the government's approach to biometrics: inadequate consultation with industry experts; cursory trials; and an aggressive reaction to academic reports designed to stimulate debate. She also cast doubt on the way the government has costed the project. Outside the inquiry, she has warned of the vulnerability of a single database holding personal data for the entire population, and of the interoperability problems in store if the government does not decide definitively which departments will be plugged into the system.
The committee acknowledged the gravity of these issues by recommending that the government carry out consultations on scientific and technical issues as well as the procurement process. Having persisted in obtaining details of future trials, the committee asked that the results be made public to build confidence in the scheme.
Like Professor Sasse, the committee was "sceptical about the validity of costs", calling for the Home Office to publish a breakdown of technology costs. It has also been asked to clarify immediately the overall scope of the ID card and the involvement of different government departments. For example, it is still unclear whether the NHS will be involved in the scheme, even though this question was raised in a separate inquiry two years ago.
Professor Sasse's disquiet over whether enrolment on the scheme is accessible to all sectors of society was taken on board; the Home Office was urged to prioritise funding to undertake social science research - and follow up on the findings.
Seeking to dispel anxiety regarding the vulnerability of personal data, Katherine Courtney, Director of the ID cards programme, stated during the inquiry that the national identity register would not necessarily be a single database, but could involve a series of data stores.
The government also announced last month that from September a taskforce on identity management will be charged with getting the public and private sectors to work together effectively on technologies and on building an ID management architecture across Whitehall.
The issues raised by Professor Sasse echo those expressed by Professor Ray Dolan, Head of the Wellcome Department of Imaging Neuroscience at UCL, who gave evidence on the use of MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) equipment as part of the same inquiry.
Professor Dolan was surprised that the government relied heavily on advice from one source (the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection) when ascertaining the potential impact of an EU Directive on the use of MRI scanners. Poor and misleading communication with the medical research community means that a Directive is now coming into force that effectively outlaws some of the uses of more powerful MRI scanners, despite the fact that they have been used in these ways for some time to research neurological diseases such as dementia and epilepsy, without any irreversible adverse effects. The Directive will however be reviewed in 2009.
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