[Dave Birch] The Royal Academy of Engineering Report on Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance was released last week [PDF}.  As I’ve mentioned before, I was a member of the working group and helped to prepare the sections on the technology roadmap.  The report makes a number of sensible recommendations — that would be entirely familiar to readers of this blog — about balancing privacy and security in the real world.  What was fascinating to me was the way that it was reported.  Because I spend a substantial fraction of my working day thinking about identity, authentication, privacy and security on behalf of customers, I suppose I don’t really think too much about how the issues seem to the general public or non-specialists (eg, journalists).  They tended to either pick out one line from the entire report and the construct a somewhat sensationalist (and technically confused) "scare" story from it — about smart bombs, for example, imagining terrorists crafting bombs that use the biometric data stored on passports to target specific nationalities (without explaining how exactly the biometric data reveals your nationality — or perhaps some nationalities don’t have fingerprints?) — or focus on the more tangible aspects of surveillance (which, in the UK, is CCTV) missing the bigger picture.  But the coverage has been extensive (it even made The Sun), which is what the report was hoping to achieve.

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Before the report came out, a few of us volunteered for media training.  This was quite fun.  We went off down to Parliament Green, near the Black Rod’s entrance, with a film crew.  The PR persons interviewed us about issues from the report and then we all went over to the Sky studios at Millbank to review the footage.  It was a useful exercise, and helped to remind me how difficult it is to communicate complex issues around identity and privacy to the public: the onus is definitely on me (well, all of us really) to do better.  When I’ve got the time, I’ll upload a couple of short videos that show us answering some key questions about the report.

I have to say it didn’t help my concentration when a group of roundhead soldiers from the English Civil War came marching past, accompanied by a very loud drum!  This wasn’t some bizarre Primeval-style anomaly, but a demonstration protesting about something to do with Somerset, although I must confess it wasn’t clear to me what they were protesting about — still, we videoed all of them and then digitised the footage (just joking!).


Anyway, here’s a snap of the key people: Natasha McCarthy from the Academy who was the report editor and Professor Nigel Gilbert who chaired the working group…


These opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]


  1. Dave I read the report and it certainly has some excellent recommendations, as a pointed out here: http://fishnchippapers.typepad.com/tomorrow_fish_n_chip_pape/2007/04/biometric_encry.html
    I also point out in my post that Biometric Encryption looks to be a potentially interesting technology with respect to balancing the needs of security and privacy. Is this something that the RAE has looked into at all and, if not, are there any plans

  2. Difficult to communicate is right. Never mind the public, if a few more ministers (more than zero, that is) were show any sign of grasping that identity is not simple – or that privacy has any meaning or value at all – then I would be greatly encouraged.
    There is a large proportion of even the educated public that lacks any of the concepts needed to comprehend the technical issues. They know nothing of stables either, but they can see the difference between a racehorse and a donkey. Whereas the Home Office scheme and local authentication of fungible credentials look precisely the same to them.
    The communication problems may be insoluble if one tries to offer technical critique.

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