This one’s for the Prof…

In my previous post I mentioned the very engaging lecture I attended last week, by Prof David Lyon – who spoke about “Identity as Surveillance – Security, Surveillance and Citizenship”.

I do hope he has seen this article from the BBC, on the opening day of the Labour Party Conference: “Lord Mandelson denied entry to conference“, because I’m sure it would give him a good laugh.

Apparently, the Noble Lord, First Secretary of State, Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, President of the Board of Trade and Lord President of the Council could not, initially, get into the conference because there was a problem with his pass. Maybe they couldn’t fit his title onto it. The press were naturally quick to savour the irony that the man perhaps most identified with New Labour should be unable to identify himself to the satisfaction of the party’s gatekeepers.

What this has to do with Prof Lyon’s talk is this: one of his themes was the way in which identity systems (particularly national ones) permit, enable and encourage judgements to be made about individuals on the basis of “actuarial criteria”, even if other methods would be more reliable (and more respectful of personal privacy).

An example Prof Lyon gave was this: research work by John Taylor and Miriam Lips (full text of paper available online here) investigated the use of online identity data by the DVLA when someone applies online for a driving licence. The researchers noted that the DVLA submits the applicant’s details to the credit reference company Experian, which attempts to corroborate the applicant’s identity assertions by matching them against databases of Credit Applications and Addresses. Experian then applies a weighting which assigns a ‘trust score’ to the applicant’s assertions, based on the apparent quality of the applicant’s digital footprint (as revealed by the database enquiries). These actuarial measurements are then used by the DVLA to govern the subsequent processing of the application transaction.

Prof Lyon’s point was that this ‘trust score’ mechanism goes beyond a simple assessment of whether or not the applicant’s address can be corroborated. The score is enhanced more, for instance, if the applicant’s records indicate that they have had a lot of interactions with clearing banks, than if the indication is that the applicant has had a lot of interactions with mail-order companies.

The implication of this is that subsequent processing of the DVLA application is determined not just by past records, but by inferences based on supposed future behaviours of the applicant – whether or not those inferences are in fact accurate.

Basically, this is what starts to happen, the more you architect systems on the basis of actuarial criteria in support of the categorisation of individuals, and the more you remove notions of human judgement and discretion from the process. Admittedly, that’s not always a bad thing – after all, humans are fallible too. But if you design humans into the process rather than out of it, you get fewer embarassing incidents such as the sight of Labour’s “eminence grise” being locked out of his own conference…

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