These are (finally) my recollections of Westminster Skeptics, 7/6/10.
Biometrics and Identification
Brooke is a scientist and supported herself during her doctoral research by becoming a sex worker in London. She documented her experiences anonymously then revealed her true identity in 2009. Obviously people tend to be surprised to hear this, but challenging such attitudes was (I assume) one of her aims.
She came to WSitP to talk not about those adventures but about the science, psychology and challenges of personal identification.
Human Identification in Forensic Science
We have a desire for authenticity, yet want privacy for ourselves – we protest ID cards and CCTV, put up net curtains in our houses – but gossip magazines fly off the shelves (though I wish they didn’t) and rumour mills never fail to be on overdrive.
Why do we want to know about others? That information is often irrelevant; trivial, social things. Here we’re talking the government and personal info.
Identity is how we define ourselves.
‘Unique’ identifiers have been used for a long time. The Bertillon system used a number of them to keep track of who’d been in prison. However, one case destroyed its perceived reliability.
Kansas jailed Will West (a murderer) but in 1903 one William West was sentenced; they looked almost exactly the same and indeed their Bertillon measurements differed only minutely. This discredited the system as it was and led to the use of fingerprinting.
So how many people were compared to establish that fingerprints are unique to every individual?
There have been attempts to write image analysis software but computer error makes it unacceptable in court. So it’s down to people, but human fallibility is ever-present.
“Why worry if you have nothing to hide?”
Sometimes innocent people get caught out by imperfect systems (Brooke gives Shirley McKie as an example). Innocent until proven guilty is (or is meant to be) the foundation of the legal system – we ought to be aware of ID measures in place, the possibilities of wrongful accusation and what to do about it.
British citizens don’t need to carry ID cards but everyone else does. Yet no card-readers actually operate in this country. The card contains data from passport, visa, fingerprints. The Government has vowed to scrap ID cards but what about all the information already on file?
Brooke managed to lose everything in her card application (at a bus stop!) – all she had to do to prove her identity was to go to the US embassy with another US citizen vouching for her. So the cards seem fairly pointless, all in all.
What about DNA?
The National DNA Database does not store all 3 billion base pairs (‘letters’) of individual genomes. You can’t store the full sequence; it’s too expensive, time-consuming and generally unacceptable. It’s an issue of privacy.
We don’t want the government knowing more about ourselves than we do.
Instead it uses 20 ‘short tandem repeats’ – relatively small lengths of DNA that are made up of repeat sequences that vary from person to person.
How acceptable is biometrics?
There is no perfect system. Considerations include:
Universality (can it be applied to everyone?)
Permanence (can it change with time? E.g. retinal scans)
Collectability (how easy is it to access and record?)
Performance (how reproducible?)
Acceptability (likelihood of consent)
Circumvention (ease of avoidance e.g. US embassy incident)
We identify ourselves in broad terms. Race is not an official biological category but we still use it! Still people are assuming that populations don’t and can’t mix. We know there’s more intra -than inter-race variation. It’s scientific fact.
People have moved on to the more ‘PC’ term “ethnicity” but this also suffers from social stereotyping.
ID is currently dependent on what people believe
Brooke showed one of her favourite PhD comics – comparing some common perceptions of science to the unfortunate reality! Time to drop in another me-and-someone-cool photo methinks…
Online, people actually tend to be truthful (despite the oft-excessive scaremongering regarding the interwebnet). People still seek trust and authenticity – just the same as irl (in real life, for those who may not know)!
Are our current problems and fears simply ‘growing pains’ like the printing press experienced – like every other technological development?
The web is the first multi-directional medium. We talk back.
I’ve made this point before, regarding Christina Odone’s indignation at people calling her out on her BS.
Personae for Sale
Where there are personal data, there’s business to be had. Tweets/facebook profiles and data for sale – advertising companies have a wealth of information available to them now.
Are we the summation of our entire history? Or do we take each moment as it comes? Is it possible to do that and still be sociable?
On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog!
Did anyone realise you were American? Revealing where you learn English
A/ I asked an English friend how to say things. People move; is where you are more important than where you were?
Do we know the maths on DNA ID? We’ve gone from 16 reference points to 20 now. What’s the chance of a false positive match?
A/ No one’s bothere to check?
Audience: There are estimates! 1:several thousand (that’s really quite high!). Lots of confusion, probably no better than fingerprints.
Martin Robbins: Why come back to science?
A/ Between submitting my thesis and the viva, I needed cash! If I’d wanted to be a writer I’d have wanted to be like Simon Singh.
What’s the usefulness of DNA fingerprints in court? How are lawyers defending it?
A/ I’m not a criminal lawyer! Statistical assumptions –> invalid model; they’re certifying people to appear as experts on ID in court.
Do you think we should give up? What’s the message?
A/ Confusion! Science, epidemiology, availability of records (histories) – People should think about it more.
Science isn’t necessarily about the results, it’s more about the process
[My boss (and all supervisors, in fact) certainly wouldn’t agree with that!]
Evan Harris: Prosecutors often use fallacious stats
1/1,000,000,000 chance of a match does not equal 999,999:1 guilty odds
Fallibility impacts on the ethics of a database; even if the whole DNA sequence was there, epigenetics brings another level of complexity. [This is the modifications to the basic DNA code that also contain information and can affect our phenotypes – physical manifestations of genetic instructions.]
The example of imprinting disorders was given, specifically Prader-Willi and its maternal equivalent Angelman syndrome (which Brooke could not remember and asked the audience, but when I finally remembered and shouted it out, did not shout loud enough! Oh well. I haven’t forgotten *everything* from uni… it’s in there somewhere).
Brooke asked: how many have at some point fabricated their ID online? Barely any hands went up.
You can’t really stray from what you are
[Here I think of Big Brother and how long people can really keep up some act in front of the cameras before they’re forced to forget it and start being themselves].
How big a problem is DNA contamination?
A/ It’s CSI fiction! I would like to think that people working on a case know what they’re doing (i.e. actually tying their hair up).
What do we have in common with our childhood selves??
A/ Good question; genetics vs. personality, nature/nurture etc. Can we quantify personality (religions, philosophy)?
Is Biometrics related to defense? Is it the fastest-growing industry?
A/ It’s well-funded. Pharma growing fast though. Popularity of crap TV contributes!
Also in attendence were some high-profile ‘bad law’ victims:
– Paul Chambers, who was prosecuted for jokingly tweeting that he’d blow up the airport if it didn’t re-open (thus preventing him from visiting his girlfriend). His experience is now infamously known as the Twitter Bomb Hoax Trial.
– Harvey Singh, who has endured a two year libel case brought by a ‘Saint’, who has never even been to the UK.
– Dave Osler, who was sued for writing a blogpost.