SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 2 MAY 2004
WE used to have great fun doing it years ago. Ringing people picked at random from the telephone directory and taking the mick. The usual stuff: "Is that Dublin Zoo? Could I speak to Mr Lyons!" What underpinned this bravado was the absence of fear of being caught.
Until one day, against all the odds, Gerry was unfortunate to pick his uncle's phone number. His voice was recognised and he ended up being thrown to the lions. He didn't squeal on us but the calls ceased pronto after that.
Now these shenanigans were way way before such things as Caller Line Identity (CLI) arrived. Back then, if the person calling didn't mention their name off the bat, there was only their voice to go on. Most of the time that was enough, but occasionally there were tricky and delicate situations which required Oscar-like performances to salvage.
Technology such as CLI has done away with all that, and mobile phones have taken it into a whole new world, where recognising someone's voice is almost the last thing which matters.
I sat on a train recently and watched in amazement as the man next to me took a succession of calls, each chorused to a purposeful routine. On hearing the ring, he adjusted his glasses before peering at the phone for what seemed like seconds. He could identify the caller before a single word was spoken and was able to then adjust his opening remarks to suit. I could guess his relationship with each caller by his tone of voice.
Identifying someone when they're not right in front of you has become a whole lot easier because of technology and pranks like I mentioned earlier are now extinct.
So many more aspects of our lives are dependent on machines and computer technology than it used to be, but it isn't all steady progress to some promised land. Online banking is a good example of what I mean.
I've been with the same branch of the same bank for over a decade. For the last five of those years I've been using the bank's online service and hadn't darkened the door of the branch. When eventually I needed to visit to sort out a small problem, I ran into an even bigger one.
There was a problem with my identity. No one in the bank knew me nor I them. They were polite and helpful but I had to return the next day with my passport. Problem sorted.
That fact that I was armed with my bank statements, bank card, PIN number and various letters, counted for nought compared to flashing the passport. Yet it only contained minimum details about me. Its key value was its trustworthiness and on that count it is hard for anything to trump a passport when it comes to identity.
There are big changes coming though when it comes to how our identity is established. And it's all down to one development: the growing importance of machines and computers.
So much of human communication is now mediated through computers and that process will only accelerate with time. All communications have a digital destination up ahead and the reliance on machines is now unstoppable.
This, I believe, is what lies at the heart of the British government's decision last week to introduce national identity cards for the entire population within ten years. There may be some disagreement over whether ID cards will be compulsory, but it's hard to understand the point if they're not.
The stated purpose may lie in security and the threat of crime and terrorism but there is much more to it than that. Any system for identification is restricted by the available technology and the British plan has a relatively new one at its disposal - biometrics.
This technology is being heavily promoted and endorsed as a practical and available solution to proving identity. It's based on the biological uniqueness of a person's fingerprints, eye structure and voice. Some aspects include handwriting.
In other words, this is a security system based entirely on physical characteristics. Why? Because besides the given of uniqueness, biometric information is machine-readable. That's crucial in understanding where we might be headed.
Beneath the considerations of state security, governments are also becoming big on delivering the whole gambit of services to citizens more efficiently and, more to the point, as cost-effectively as possible.
That sought-after cost-effectiveness, however, also applies to the type of technology those governments will adopt and the British seem set on biometrics. Same for the Americans, so it shouldn't be too long before it surfaces in Ireland.
Biometrics is a database technology. Everything hangs on the central storage of previously far flung and disconnected information. A lot of it recording the most intimate and private details of our lives. Database technology is about linking up all that information and making it machine-readable. Sound familiar?
Yes it's network science on steroids and from what we know to date, it is still at the experimental stage when it comes to trust and reliability.
The big question that needs to be answered with biometrics is this: does proving who I am need to involve the databasing of my entire life story - from cradle to grave?
If it does, then I'm a monkey's uncle.