Select Committee on Science and Technology Sixth Report

7  Public engagement and communication

136. There has been criticism over the lack of public debate regarding the technologies supporting the identity cards scheme. Dr John Daugman from Cambridge University said that "public discussion of scientific issues related to biometrically-enabled ID cards has been of a poor standard".[286] Jerry Fishenden from Microsoft agreed, saying that "communication, such as it is, is both insufficient in quantity, if you like, and the quality of it at the moment is not of the calibre I would expect".[287] Dr Tony Mansfield from the National Physical Laboratory said that "given that there can be so many misconceptions about how the scheme should work, would work, there are some problems with communication".[288] Furthermore, Intellect has suggested that the debate has been skewed towards biometric technologies. It has stated that "it is important to recognise that although the ID Card debate has focused primarily on biometrics so far, there is more to ID Cards and identity management."[289]

137. The Home Office has attempted to communicate with the public. The identity cards programme, in co-operation with the UK Passport Service, has developed a public communications strategy, which has involved various activities including:

a)  regional biometric roadshows in September and October 2005 where members of the public could have their iris and fingerprints recorded and verified;

b)  production of customer leaflets explaining biometrics, how facial biometrics will work on the e-passport and how biometric passports will fight fraud;

c)  making information regarding the scheme available on the IPS website; and

d)  creation of a DVD to explain the implementation of the identity cards programme.[290]

We acknowledge the Home Office's efforts to engage the public and recommend that these efforts intensify as the scheme progresses.

138. We also note however the apparent disconnect between the Home Office's activities and the poor quality of public debate highlighted in the evidence that we have received. We believe that the problem may result from prominent media reports, for example about the Atos Origin report, the skimming of information off biometric passports, the LSE Identity Project Report and an early variant identity card. As already mentioned, the Atos Origin report was not designed as a trial to look at the performance of technology (see paragraph 88). However, following the leak of the Atos Origin report in October 2005, there were numerous articles detailing the "failures of biometric technology".[291] In February 2006, there were several reports explaining how a Dutch firm had skimmed data from a biometric passport.[292] As mentioned previously, the Identity Project at the London School of Economics has been the subject of numerous press reports that have emphasised its criticisms of the Home Office scheme.[293] More recently, internal e-mails from the Office of Government Commerce published in the press have referred to an early variant card, which other newspaper reports have speculated would just include a facial image or two fingerprints.[294] Such articles disseminate misleading or factually inaccurate information, which undermines public confidence in the scheme and allows misconceptions regarding the technology to develop that may cause problems later.

139. Although some of these articles contained rebuttals from Home Office officials, of course not all did so and we acknowledge that the media can be selective in choosing information. The National Physical Laboratory notes that "the media has often been selective in quoting our responses, using only those that support the thrust of their story".[295] Qinetiq has also said that "it is inevitable that the media will focus on the sensational or the worrying stories. More attention needs to be given upfront to combining a media-savvy approach with informed technical input."[296]

140. Given that the Minister, Joan Ryan, has acknowledged that "When we are running this out to the public, there is a huge issue of trust", we encourage the Home Office to engage proactively with relevant journalists.[297] The departmental Chief Scientific Adviser explained to us that he was already taking this approach in other areas such as crime. Regarding the positive presentation of science and statistics in the media, he said that:

"There are some real difficulties there. I am not blaming the journalists or the press; I think there is a problem. There is a problem because, as we know, we do tend to have a rather weak scientific and numeracy culture in this country which does not help."[298]

We urge Professor Wiles to apply this approach to other areas of science within the Home Office, in particular the technologies supporting the identity cards scheme.

141. We support the identity cards programme's public communications strategy. However, we believe that this effort has been undermined by damaging media reports. We recommend that the Home Office seeks to inform the identity cards debate with accurate statistics and evidence, and communicates with the media more clearly in addition to seeking to rebut allegations as they arise.

286   Ev 83 Back

287   Q 516 Back

288   Q 539 (Mansfield) Back

289   Ev 103 Back

290   Ev 119-120 Back

291   Gerri Peev, "ID cards will lead to 'massive fraud'", The Scotsman, 18 October 2005; Tim Shipman, "The 'faulty' ID cards that could fail to identify a terror suspect", Daily Mail,17 October 2005, p5; Marie Woolf, "ID Card scanning system riddled with errors; Hi-Tech equipment could misidentify one in 1,000 people, say official", Independent on Sunday, 16 October 2005, p 10; Oonagh Blackman, "ID Cards won't work if you've got brown eyes says Govt. Minister", The Mirror, 17 October 2005, p 16 Back

292   Fran Yeoman, "Dutch firm exposes flaw in security of biometric passports", The Times , 3 February 2006, p 17; Allison Martin,"Chip and Pinch; ID Card fears after biometric passport 'cracked' in 2 hours", The Mirror, 2 February 2006, p 4 Back

293   Jimmy Burns, "Treasury should take over project, says study", The Financial Times, 17 January 2006, p 2 Back

294   "Emails from Whitehall officials in charge of ID cards", The Sunday Times, 9 July 2006;Jean Eaglesham, "ID cards procurement put on hold", The Financial Times, 12 July 2006, p 2 Back

295   Ev 110 Back

296   Ev 86 Back

297   Q 1154 Back

298   Q 1118, HC 900-x, (to be published in HC 900-II, Session 2005-06) Back

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