Friday, December 14, 2007

Is God in the machine?

Recording a Radio 4 spot
This week Radio 4's science show Leading Edge kindly asked me to record a short opinion piece. It was broadcast on last night's programme. You can listen to the audio, and read below my cheery Christmas message.


We are living in the middle of an information revolution. In 1965 Intel founder Gordon Moore first noted the doubling of the number of transistors per integrated circuit roughly every 24 months [1]. Raw computer power has since increased a million-fold. Hard disk capacity and Internet bandwidth are increasing at an even faster pace. Disk information density is doubling annually [2]. We can now fit 160 wavelengths down one fibre cable, with photonic integrated circuits capable of carrying 1.6 terabits per second [3] — the equivalent of over 10,000 television channels.

Surely the UK government must be correct to think this explosion in computing capability can solve some of society's most pressing problems? National databases of 60m citizens' health records, biometrics and children's details are now possible. You could be data matched against the profiles of alcoholics, suicide bombers and delinquent dads before breakfast. Even the estimated £70bn budgeted by the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on major IT projects and consultancy [4] would seem small change if their promises of a substantially healthier and safer society were fulfilled.

Unfortunately our capacity to design, build and securely operate information systems has not progressed quite so rapidly. In the last decade alone we have seen severe IT problems at the Child Support Agency, Passport Office, Criminal Records Bureau, HM Revenue & Customs, National Air Traffic Services and the Department for Work and Pensions [5]. Revenue & Customs have recently demonstrated the problems of systems that allow 25m child benefit records to be downloaded by junior officials — and who knows how many criminal gangs had already trodden this path before two discs were so unfortunately lost in the post.

The Information Commissioner told Parliament last week he had recently seen a whole stream of top businessmen and civil servants who revealed on a "confessional basis" that many more spectacular data breaches remain to be discovered [6].

We have heard from the prime minister that biometric security based on fingerprints and iris scans would reduce the problems caused by criminal plundering of personal data. This claim is not based on a realistic understanding of the technology [7]. We have recently seen fingerprint scanners fooled by prints reconstructed using gummi bear sweets. Trials have found problems in recording biometrics from several groups such as Asian women and manual workers. And once your biometrics are compromised, you have no way to change your fingers or irises.

In building widely accessible databases describing tens of millions of citizens, it seems that our government is trying to run at the speed of Moore's law rather than walk at the much slower pace of our developing understanding of secure and privacy-protective systems. Rather than risk a continuing stream of Revenue & Customs-scale breaches, the government might be wiser to listen to the computer scientists [8] who recommend a slower and more considered path towards information nirvana.


[1] Gordon E. Moore. Cramming more components onto integrated circuits. Electronics Magazine 38(8), 19/4/1965

[2] E. Grochowski and R. D. Halem. Technological impact of magnetic hard disk drives on storage systems. IBM Systems Journal 42(2), 21/4/2003

[3] Fred A. Kish et al. Ultra High Capacity WDM Photonic Integrated Circuits. Optical Fiber Communication and the National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference 2007

[4] David Craig and Richard Brooks. Plundering the Public Sector. London: Constable, 10/4/2006

[5] Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Government IT projects, July 2003

[6] Patrick Wintour. Information chief calls for review of ID card plans. The Guardian, 5/12/2007

[7] Ross Anderson, Richard Clayton, Ian Brown, Brian Gladman, Angela Sasse and Martyn Thomas. Biometrics are not a panacea for data loss. Letter to the Joint Committee on Human Rights, 26/11/2007

[8] Brian Randell. A computer scientist's reactions to NPfIT. Journal of Information Technology (2007) 22, 222–234

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Life in Oman becoming very hard for local Omani citizens

Since the beginning of year 2000, life expenses have been increasing and going up ever since the millennium. Most professionals working in Oman are mainly Indians which covers over 60% of professional employers. The house rents prices have been increasing, land prices have also been increasing which means the local omanis are now facing a big problem to survive in the city areas as they cant afford to pay high rents and support their own families which force them to go back and live in the interior countryside or villages where its cheap for them. This problem is caused mainly of lack of education on the locals, and another main thing found in Oman is tribe favors. If you get a person related to you or who happens to be same tribe as you then most probably he will help you get a job, even though you are not qualified for that job he will use his power and fame to put you there. The government is not doing anything about this, as you also find in government offices where only the local citizens are allowed to work, unqualified personals are employed. The guy will be there, with a pc in front of him which he switches on 2-3 times in a week or even once in a month, an all-in-one printer which he rarely use. The problem is this person here do not even know how to operate the pc & printer but he is there because he is given that job from the power of his family member, or according to tribes and yet another educated & qualified Omani citizen cant find a job which he have been spending 4-6 years studying, he completes his studies and he cant get a job. Interviews are not carried, if the people are given interviews then the ones who are qualified for that job will be there. The government should do something about this.