Figures, statistics and cost-of-cancellation

‘Home Secretary says undoing ID Cards project will cost £40m”…

I know I’m by no means the first person to have commented on this story, but for the heck of it, here’s my 2-penn’orth.

Not unexpectedly, the opposition has taken the opportunity to re-cast one of their objections to the National ID Cards scheme (NIS) as a “how can the Government commit us to £40m of wasted public money at time when the public finances are already is such dire shape?” question.

In some respects I think the criticism is unfair; for instance, it was not Jacqui Smith who (as one might infer from the Computing article I linked to) wrote cancellation clauses into the contracts with NIS suppliers. That happened long before she arrived at the Home Office, and even longer before the effects of the economic downturn really started to bite. If the shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling, has only just noticed the cancellation clauses, he must have been asleep for some time.

In other respects, however, the story uncovers all the same confusions and confabulations which have made it so hard to take policy statements on the NIS seriously.

For instance, here’s one line of reasoning put forward by the Home Secretary (at least, according to the Computing article):

– Cancelling the ID cards scheme will cost some £40m in cancellation fees;
– Cancelling the ID cards scheme will therefore ‘not free up a large fund of money to spend on other priorities’;
– Cancelling the ID cards scheme is therefore not worth considering on grounds of cost.

As Richard Veryard has observed, if spending £40m removes the commitment to spend £4bn, that looks like a pretty good net outcome.

The riposte to this appears to be “Ah, but the ID cards scheme won’t cost £4bn anyway… the cards actually only account for £1.19bn of the budget, with a further £550,000,000 to £750,000,000 for storage of biometrics”.

At the risk of being accused of shooting fish in a barrel… writing off £40m to save £1.19bn, £1.74bn or £1.94bn still doesn’t look too fiscally imprudent to me. The broader point, though, is this: yet again, the over-all NIS policy is being justified on the basis of confusing (whether deliberately or otherwise) the authentication functions, the biometric elements, the databases which enable those other parts to work, and the little piece of plastic wich you may or may not end up carrying in your wallet. Or, according to various ministerial statements, your shoe*.

The point is that as long as policy statements perpetuate this confusion, most citizens will tend to assess the risk/benefit of the NIS on the basis of the physical part of it which is tangible to them; the “terrifying, small… plastic card“. That is not an adequate basis for informed consent.

* This rather gnomic comment relates to public statements like this, which I and others have heard made at minsterial level (this is not verbatim, but is accurate in essence): “Every weekend, the Passport Service receives hundreds of passports which have been sent in from nightclubs where they have been left behind/dropped by young ladies who needed something to prove their age, but had nowhere to keep something the size of a passport. What those young ladies need is a proof-of-age credential which is credit-card sized and can therefore be slipped conveniently into their shoe.”

Problem solved. I don’t know why I have been being so selfish. Of course my biometrics can be recorded in perpetuity… as long as it means that all female clubbers who are of legal age but don’t look it can have a credential which fits into whatever footwear Young People wear nowadays when they frequent the discotheque. Proportionality, my iris.

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