Watching every single move we make: New-style driving licences linked to computers could make Big Brother a reality, says Simon Davies

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The Independent Online
IN THE heated discussion of whether photographs should be included on a new-style driving licence, one aspect has been neglected: those photographs will be digital; they will be capable of being stored on computer, read by machine and matched with other photographs.

Consider now the power of the modern surveillance camera when teamed up with even a moderately priced computer - it is truly awesome. It can achieve what even the East German Stasi could only dream about.

First, it can detect whether you are travelling over the speed limit. Having done that, it will cheerfully scan your number plate, identify your vehicle, communicate with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority (DVLA) and police computers, and send you a nasty surprise in the post. All within seconds. The latest version can even display your car's details - and your offence - on a giant neon sign for all the world to see.

Across the Atlantic, computer research companies have succeeded in creating surveillance systems that work the same magic with human faces. The NeuroMetric System can match the images from surveillance cameras with facial images held in computer data bases. The Florida-based company has developed a system that uses a range of powerful computing technologies which can scan a crowd at the rate of 20 faces a second, 'digitise' the faces, and match the images accurately against identities in a data base.

The machine cannot be fooled by a change of facial hair, expression, or hairstyle. Three dimensional imaging technology and 'neural networks' which mimic the functions of the human brain, have made this technology hugely powerful.

Within two years, this type of machine will have the capacity to scan a data base of 50 million faces in less than a minute. It will be able to link into the system images from any closed circuit camera.

In a decade or less, this device is likely to be operating in Britain. By then, the DVLA and the police will have compiled a data base containing the digitised 'face prints' of virtually the entire population. How? Using the new photo driving licences, to be issued from 1996. When you smile for the licence camera, your features could be instantly stored in the computer.

If current trends continue, cameras on motorways will not merely scan numberplates, they will routinely peer straight into the vehicles and scan the occupants. Tens of thousands of cameras in public places, phone booths and bank cash machines will do the same.

When he brandished a prototype driving licence last week, the Secretary of State for Transport, Dr Brian Mawhinney, made clear that the new licence might well be more than just a card with a photograph. The Government was thinking about 'improving' the licence by adding a computer chip. The card could then hold considerable amounts of additional information: health data, details of criminal and driving offences - even financial information. Various government agencies had already argued that the licence should be used as a basis for social services payments, bank account verification, and health service provision. And, not surprisingly, the police had lobbied to have fingerprints included.

What the minister was describing was a 'smart card'. Such cards are capable of storing, processing and organising the equivalent of many pages of data. Fingerprints, digitised photograph, digitised signature, medical and banking records, social security details and countless other pieces of information can all be stored on the chip embedded in this card. Not merely stored, but also programmed and processed. Place the card in a reader, and the information becomes visible.

On its own, this smart card may not seem so remarkable. But when connected to outside computer networks, it becomes a very powerful and extraordinary device.

To understand the true significance of Dr Mawhinney's smart card, we need to ponder one amazing fact: within 10 years, every computer on the planet will have the ability to speak to any other computer on the planet. There will be a vast web of information and technology touching every aspect of our lives. We will need to be 'recognised' by this web. We will be required to establish our credentials to move within it. The smart card proves we are who we say we are. It will be the key that allows us to move freely around the web. As more aspects of our life become dependent on computer technology, the smart card will find more and more uses.

All this may sound like paranoia. But it probably isn't. For the past five years, the British government has adopted a strategy of linking and matching its computers. In the health sector the plan is known as the Information Management and Technology Strategy. The Home Office plan to merge police computers is called the ISIT Strategy.

The process of linking and matching computers is also going on internationally. Immigration, telecommunications, social welfare and police systems are being linked. Registered travellers entering the United States can now place their hand on a computer screen for 'biometric' verification. Their identity is instantly confirmed, and the immigration computer makes an international search to determine eligibility to enter the country. Some experts are confident that this system, currently being tested at two of the airports serving New York, will be global within 15 years.

These developments might not be so worrying, if it was not that the web is being designed and constructed almost entirely behind closed doors, and almost exclusively by technicians. In proposing a new-style driving licence, Dr Mawhinney may not fully realise the might of technology. Like anyone who uses a computer, he has just hitched his wagon to its star. He may applaud or even authorise the use of the technology, but he has virtually no say in its design.

The speed of technological development is such that a comprehensive set of standards needs to be devised to ensure openness and accountability from those in power - including government ministers considering the inclusion of photographs on driving licences.

The author is visiting fellow in the law departments of Essex and Greenwich universities.

(Photograph omitted)

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