The Extinction of Privacy and Personal Security Via Biometrics and the Cashless Society

2nd November 2015 / Editors Picks, United Kingdom
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TruePublica

In a survey of 1,000 UK shoppers by the retail personalisation company RichRelevance, respondents were asked to rate a suite of in-store shopping technologies as either “cool” or “creepy”, and facial recognition fell decidedly on the creepy end of the scale.

In this survey it was found that companies will soon be using a range of technical tools to achieve sales via personalised product recommendations and promotions, screens displaying their products, possibly utilising an image of you and even getting assistants to bring products, say clothes, and automatically unlock dressing room doors.

Of course, the only way they can do this is by using facial recognition systems. As soon as you walk in store, your mobile gives you away. This provides the retailer with sufficient information to identify your age and gender, whether you are are a high value customer and your spending habits. All of this was found to be very ‘creepy’ by respondents.

There are no laws or guidelines limiting their use and as soon as it gets into the wrong hands problems occur. One would not normally think that our own security services would be a threat to innocent civilians going about their lawful business.

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Police forces in England and Wales have uploaded up to 18 million “mugshots” to a facial recognition database – despite a court ruling to be unlawful. They include photos of people never charged, or others cleared of an offence, and were uploaded without Home Office approval.

Photos of “hundreds of thousands” of innocent people may be on the database, an independent commissioner said. Biometrics Commissioner Alastair MacGregor QC said he was concerned about the implications of the system for privacy and civil liberties. Speaking in his first interview, he told Newsnight that police forces had begun setting up a searchable database of mugshots last year, without telling either him or the Home Office. Almost every police force in England and Wales had now supplied photographs, he said.

Facial recognition systems are already used by Britain’s spy agencies and by the Border Force at UK airports and ports. The FBI now has a database that covers one third of the the American adult population, so does Britain’s police and security services.

And what of the accuracy of these systems. Last summer, the Facebook artificial intelligence team announced that its facial-recognition software passed key tests with near human-level accuracy. It presented a further development: Yann LeCun, the AI team’s director, boasted that a different algorithm could identify people 83 percent of the time even if their faces were not even in the picture. The program instead works from a person’s hairdo, posture, and body type.

The issue is that no-one really gave the authorities or private companies for that matter the authority to use, store or sell your face. Terms and Conditions wrapped up in dozens of pages of legal speak is not good enough. What if corrupt officers or hackers switch images of the guilty to the innocent?

In the UK, all passports issued, no matter who you are, are biometric and have been since 2006. The Biometric Residence Permit is also used if you want to enter the country and stay. By next year, every single passport issued in the UK will be biometric.

The EU has set minimum standards for passports which include the use of facial and fingerprint biometrics but the UK has not signed up to these regulations.

The UK’s biometric passports contain a microchip with a ‘facial biometric’. This is a digitised image of the holders photograph. Various features on the face, for example the distance between eyes, nose, mouth and ears, are digitally coded from the photograph and the information stored on the electronic chip.

In just the first year of issuing biometric passports, the UK Passport Office admitted to issuing tens of thousands of passports to fraudsters.

It was always government desire to have a UK wide ID card system and back in 2006 it was announced that this would come. There was very serious objection to ID cards and it was dropped only for driving licenses to effectively do the job as the Transport Minister of the time, Alistair Darling said. Driving licences moved to ‘photo card’ versions this summer and caused chaos.

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency holds the details of 44 million UK citizens. They have been heavily criticised in the past for selling the personal details of millions of unsuspecting citizens to unscrupulous marketeers and some decidedly dodgy operations, a practice dubbed ‘legalised mugging’ by motoring groups. Some companies were sold details where the directors were convicted criminals, some of these companies have gone bust with personal information ‘vaporising’. The DVLA has a duty to protect people and clearly it doesn’t bother too much about the law or indeed its own Charter.

No-one gave the DVLA permission to sell personal information on to anyone, let alone convicted criminals. IDEED, Fake driving licenses for youngsters attempting to get into bars, clubs and gigs are now freely and quite legally advertised on the net. You would have thought the government would stop the manufacture of counterfeit anything, let alone official government issued identification, no matter what.

Applying for a UK passport and/or UK driving license requires you to pay for documents to be issued, without the use of cash. The cashless society is something you’ll be hearing a lot more about quite soon.

Last year, for the first time, the majority of payments were made without cash – either on the internet or phone, or through electronic payment systems.

It is deemed by government officials that cash is used for money laundering and tax evasion. Cash is bad for society in that respect. Not that the government has stopped the biggest money launderers and facilitators of tax evasion in the world – the banks, the very organisations managing this new system.

According to new research, the rise of new contactless payment methods has lead one in every four people to say that the UK will become a cashless society within the next decade.

The general consensus as to what will be the key agent driving the migration to a cashless society appears to be settling on the introduction of Apple Pay and how biometric technology is quickly changing our payment interactions. “Apple Pay highlights that consumers are now widely receptive to payment approaches which use biometric technology and contactless methods, and are comfortable accepting them as secure payment mechanisms. No longer will we need to rely, it seems, on a pocketful of cash,” said John Marsden, identity and fraud expert at Equifax.

A cashless society is a huge threat to our freedom and our democracy. In 2010, Visa and MasterCard, bowed to US government pressure and banned all online-betting payments from their systems. This made it virtually impossible for these gambling sites to continue operating regardless of their jurisdiction or legality. What next?

A cashless society would certainly give governments unprecedented access to information and power over citizens. In Britain, the government has almost unprecedented access to citizen information already. The notoriety of GCHQ’s technical abilities in its illegal surveillance systems need not be repeated here.

Biometric data is also a huge threat to our privacy. The boundary between commercial and government data is porous at best. Biometric identifiers are stolen all the time. It’s easy to replace a swiped credit card, but good luck changing the patterns on your iris or changing your fingerprints once stolen in an Apple hack.

Facial recognition is just another form of biometric data. It’s very difficult to know how our images are being used and whether our right to privacy is being respected. The digital surveillance genie is out of the bottle, and many privacy campaigners have little faith that regulators will ever be able to stuff it back in. It’s too late already and governments are happy to react glacially for their own purposes.

Imagine a future in which soon, a government staff member could suspect an individual of some misconduct, or perhaps deem that person’s politics or speech unacceptable. It would take just a few keystrokes to order all financial institutions to decline any withdrawal or payment from that individual or at least freeze any access to funds.

As David Cameron has demonstrated with his irrational determination to outlaw encryption, the only real defence left in the personal security toolbox, the government could also order private companies to decline access to all sorts of personal technologies – even the power to your home or internet connection.

The theft of personal information is rampant – 4 million TalkTalk customers including bank details, Vodafone customer details and multiple bank hack attacks costing millions to name just a few. But the mother of all non-stop leaks are the dozens of government data losses covering tens of millions of citizen details; from new born baby data to cancer victims, from nuclear power secrets to state secrets of the Ministry of Defence. In just one case, the tax office ‘lost’ the very personal details of 25 million British citizens and their dependency on the state.

Identity theft, fraud and terrorism are real problems. Used properly, biometrics could help protect against them. But the potential for misuse is glaringly obvious, especially in the hands of the most untrustworthy of organisations – the government.

Graham Vanbergen – TruePublica

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