Posts on this blog represent my opinion. It may be my considered opinion on the basis of my formal study of law and technology. But it is not legal advice. It must not be treated as, or acted upon as, legal advice and no liability is accepted for doing so.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Computer Says Yes, Mr Bin Laden - have a nice trip!

To err is human, goes the saying, but to really make a mess of things requires a computer. Yet everyday experience suggests that we tend to be remarkably trusting of the output of computers - perhaps the most common recent example being the stories of drivers cheerfully following GPS directions the wrong way up one-way streets, or even through floods or onto railway tracks.

All of which makes this story in The Times about cloning of electronic passports all the more worrying. E-passports have been held up as the gold standard of travel security (despite the loudly-voiced concerns of security experts) and there is a risk that airport check-in or security staff, faced with a suspect traveller, will see an e-passport as an unquestionable confirmation of identity. We may laugh at the stereotype of someone who abdicates all responsibility to a computer, but should we be more worried when the response is not "computer says no" but "computer says yes"?


Anonymous said...

False positives are pretty much always much worse than false negatives - if the computer says "No" about something then people are willing to think it's missed something - if it says "Yes" then people assume it's right.

Getting onto the "Safe to Fly" list is therefore as bad as getting onto the "No Fly" list - in either case, getting a human to believe that a list is wrong is extremely hard.

Anonymous said...

I had another aircraft false positive on a trip a while ago, where the plane landed to let some people off before heading on to it's final destination after refuelling. The crew counted the remaining passengers and found the number didn't add up, so they tried again and then again after requesting all passengers return to their seats, they may have stopped there or had to try once more before the numbers added up and everyone was happy.