Amber and the Windrush People

London 2035 ?

My cruel snobbish side has long worried about how someone with the name of a pole dancer filled one of the highest offices of the land. My practical informed side has long worried about how the Home Office was ever entrusted to someone dumb enough to think the EU was a good idea.

But now that Amber Rudd has gone the way of the Empire Windrush landing cards, we have time to extract the real lesson from this sad piece of bureaucratic callousness. Of course, it will be a lesson completely overlooked by Britain’s press.

Anyone with a mind has long understood that the obnoxious thing about government-controlled identity is that states control the evidence but make the individual responsible for producing that evidence and verifying it. It’s a perfect example of guilty until proven innocent.

Not only does the state _not_ have to prove its case against the person whose “papers are not in order”, but the accused individual must prove _his_ innocence, despite sometimes having no access to some of the records in question, and despite the state being the only judge of whether he has succeeded to their satisfaction in proving that innocence.

This is why state-mandated ID is such a bad idea.

The state can demand you produce some landing cards it has stashed safely in Archive X, but then throw you out of your home of fifty years because another part of the state never knew where Archive X was, or looked in Archive Y instead.

Biometric identity, such as your iris scans or your fingerprints or your DNA or your voiceprint, is worse.

Biometric data is insecure yet cannot be changed. It can be stolen, it can be faked, and it can be read off your body like those passwords that people write on yellow notelets they stick to their computer screens. Having people’s irises scanned routinely simply makes it certain that one day some criminal will cut a person’s eyeball out because they don’t have the time to make the iris-scan-spoofing contact lenses to order.

With both biometric data and the current stash of state identity documents, the basic assumption is the state must have control of all this information. We assume the government apparatus must store these files about our voices, our DNA, our blood or eyeballs, however well we know states cannot be trusted to store vital info. There is nothing magically different that distinguishes the mislaid landing cards that proved those people from the Caribbean were entitled to be living and working in Britain from future computer files of what everyone’s eyes or fingers look like.

Trusting the state to keep and oversee this data is hugely stupid.

If you and the state disagree about the very idea of who you are, what kind of equality before the law is that? How can you have a chance of a fair outcome if state officials give themselves a monopoly over verifying the files you need (whether digital stores of your DNA or pieces of cardboard from the 1950s) to prove your case against them?

All enthusiasts for state controlled identity fail to think this through. But is there a way that data could be kept safely yet not by the state?

There is. 

The initial excitement over cryptocurrencies like BitCoin or Ethereum has been about their astonishing rise in value. Greed for quick cash reliably blots out all other thought. Yet a few people have noted that the “blockchain” has enormous potential in other areas, not just as a basis for currencies.

Blockchains are encrypted ledgers of transactions that get constantly updated, a constant updating which both distributes them across thousands of computers (making the information almost impossible to lose or to destroy) and at the same time makes the encryption of the information effectively impossible to crack or forge.

There are already blockchain-based projects which are designed to safeguard the identity documents of stateless people, such as Lala World, the ID2020 Alliance, and Handshake. (A rather less well-designed project for the Rohingya people of Burma also belongs in this list). This technology protects and encrypts in a tamper-proof form any kind of document – digital or paper-based – which individuals need protected. Best of all it keeps their documents safe _and_ out of the mucky paws of governments. Safe until that day a legal case against some government department requires the documents be produced in court. Blockchain-encryption stops the government department sabotaging or destroying the evidence against it, as is depressingly standard practice whenever an individual dares disagree with a state pen-pusher. 

Continental governments such as France or Germany feel something like disgust when their citizens talk back to their officials. This helps explain why these relatively rich civilised countries on the European mainland have again and again through history become police states with perplexing suddenness. It also explains why the EU, their club paying elaborate lip service to freedom, justice, and safety from tyranny, has such a deep ambivalence about those values.

Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, among other countries simply take for granted that their state officials should be the prosecutors, judges, and juries in any test of who can live, vote, or work in their states. EU-envying British officials share this worldview more than we might wish.

Blockchain-secured documentary evidence will transform this. Naturally there will be resistance from state officials who are used to all information belonging to them as if by right.

One concern is that the imminent arrival of quantum computing enabling brute-force hacks of poorly-designed crypto-blockchain projects, but this is no serious obstacle. A Russian team in Moscow announced to the crypto-programming community in May 2017 they’d constructed a proof-of-principle blockchain model mathematically secure against quantum-computing attacks. They claim tests within Gazprombank’s internal data system are already showing promise. Other teams are doing the same research. 

This is the future, but more than the future. It’s also a return to the common-sense version of human-scale bureaucracy we thought was gone forever. The quaintly ineffectual Ealing-comedy government inspectors of Passport to Pimlico or Whisky Galore might not belong to a vanished era after all. Computers are not necessarily the Big Central Machine: that’s just the period of industrial history they emerged from. We don’t have to have our very identities ruled by the Ambers or the Theresas or any of the other trolls breeding in the Brutalist basement of the Home Office.

Mark Griffith is a financial trader and writer based in Budapest. He keeps a weblog at following politics, economics, AI, computer security, and other subjects.[pullquote]

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3 Comments on Amber and the Windrush People

  1. The whole Bogbrush ‘scandal’ has been fomented to undermine the fight against illegal immigration and to distract attention from the chronic anti-Semitism of the Labour Party.

  2. A very simple point: I think we need to return to being the sort of society where for instance the bank manager personally knows his customers and is prepared to vouch for their trustworthiness (or otherwise). Unfortunately we’re moving in the opposite direction, with those sorts of real relationships being replaced by faceless bureaucracy which has no conception of basic common sense. We just saw that happen with the Windrush fiasco.

    The bank manager example is just one example. It’s a metaphor for everything else that’s happening at present.

  3. Let us temper our enthusiasms. There is no machine that goes of itself once set going. All systems are badly designed at some remove. If it can be made, it can be broken. The blockchain arms race cycle and inherent risks of misplaced trusts (who will guard the coders ?) has begun.