[Dave Birch] For a variety of reasons, identity and identity management are back in the mix. With yet more in the newspapers here about internet trolls and the perils of “anonymity”, I think I can see the early signs that personal identity in the 21st century is going to be a political battleground. Something, frankly, needs to be done. But what? The BBC’s “60 second idea” slot had an interesting idea about identity.

This week science fiction writer Elizabeth Moon argues that everyone should be given a barcode at birth… “If I were empress of the Universe I would insist on every individual having a unique ID permanently attached – a barcode if you will; an implanted chip to provide an easy, fast inexpensive way to identify individuals.

[From BBC – Future – Technology – ‘Barcode everyone at birth’]

As far as the barcode I idea goes, I’m afraid Elizabeth is behind the curve. A group of Eastern European entertainment entrepreneurs had this idea some time ago and have been conducting a rather revolting pilot scheme.

Spanish police arrested 22 suspected pimps who allegedly used violence to force women into prostitution and tattooed them with bar codes as a sign of ownership

[From Barcode Pimps: Gang Suspected Of Tattooing Women Forced Into Prostitution Arrested By Spanish Police]

Maybe not barcodes. Actually, the idea of implanting chips isn’t in the least bit new either. We used to have fun a few years ago talking about examples such as the Barcelona nightclub that used the Verichip as a substitute for a VIP Card. I wrote about this back in 2006!

It sounds bizarre, I know, but remember that everyone’s current favourite case study for this sort of thing is the Baja Beach nightclub in Barcelona, where patrons were offered the choice between a card and a chip and some of them chose the chip.

[From Digital Identity: Chip ’em all]

People were very surprised that some of the patrons opted for a chip, but I wasn’t. It sounded rather fun to me. In fact, I tried to persuade the company involved to inject a chip into my arm on stage at a Digital Identity Forum (I think back in 2007) but they absolutely wouldn’t because their insurance didn’t cover the UK. Nevertheless, I think the chip idea needs a little more thinking through. For one thing, it’s already been tried for non-entertainment purposes, and the result indicates to me that it might more properly be considered as a convenience technology than a security technology.

With kidnappings spiraling out of control in Mexico and extensive evidence of police complicity, Mexico is apparently seeing rising demand for anti-kidnapping chips sold by a company called Xega. In essence, they’ll install an RFID chip under your arm so you can be tracked if kidnapped.

[From Soaring Demand For RFID Chip Implants In Mexico As Kidnappings Continue To Rise | ThinkProgress]

Well, that sounds like Elizabeth’s idea in prototype, so I wonder how it has been working out.

This is, of course, not a foolproof solution as in one case “an armed gang invaded Fernandez’s home, sliced open his arm with a pair of scissors and extracted a satellite-enabled tracking device, leaving the chip and a streak of blood behind.”

[From Soaring Demand For RFID Chip Implants In Mexico As Kidnappings Continue To Rise | ThinkProgress]

Uh oh. Chipping people isn’t going to help. Chips make sense in the case where the convenience of RFID is married to the chip tamper-resistance in environments where people want both of them. Like the nightclub.

An Ohio company has embedded silicon chips in two of its employees – the first known case in which US workers have been “tagged” electronically as a way of identifying them.

[From US group implants electronic tags in workers – FT.com]

We’re probably close to the point where camera technology and face recognition algorithms will render this implementation redundant so what I would say to Elizabeth is that we already have unique identifiers given to us a birth — such as our DNA — and they are not really the problem. The problem is the two-sided digital identity binding that we’ve written about so many times before: how do we bind the physical person to the digital identity, the problem that is solved through biometrics, and how do we bind the digital identity to the virtual person, the problem that is solved through certificates. No-one needs to barcode anyone.

These are personal opinions and should not be misunderstood as representing the opinions of 
Consult Hyperion or any of its clients or suppliers




  1. Dear Dave

    “We’re probably close to the point where camera technology and face recognition algorithms will render this implementation redundant …”

    It would be fascinating to know what evidence you have for that. So far the history of automated face recognition is a history of uninterrupted failure.

    The UK government are wasting public money on mass consumer biometrics and have been for years. In the world-famous case David Moss v Information Commissioner and the Home Office, the government declined the invitation to publish any evidence that face recognition or flat print fingerprinting work, http://dematerialisedid.com/bcsl/foi.html

    Which is a bit embarrassing really. Perhaps your evidence could help them out.

    Incidentally, don’t bother approaching India for any help on this score. They’re not relying on automated face recognition at all in their Aadhaar scheme, intended to issue 1.2 billion people with an electronic identity. They don’t think it works. It would be interesting to know why you do.

    Best wishes

  2. I just tested the face recognition in iPhoto on the photos on my work laptop. Of the first 65 photos that it found that it thought were me, it was right 62 times. Not good enough for nuclear missile launch codes, not even good enough for border control. But, I think, good enough for Tesco’s loyalty card.

    I agree with you entirely about the limitations of the technology, but I suppose I disagree with you about the shape of the curve. I think relatively small improvements in algorithms and cameras, that are very likely over the next 3-5 years, will make face recognition a mass market reality.

  3. Show me an uncorruptible goverment by the people for the people, and I’ll glady offer it my digital identity and live happily ever after.
    However while we have a government by the goon squad, for the banks, I’ll be exercising my dwindling right to opt out.

  4. Dear Dave

    Thanks for the response.

    “Not good enough for nuclear missile launch codes, not even good enough for border control.”

    I’ll bank that, you can have Tesco’s.

    Best wishes

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