Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Biometric passport terror

An hour ago, a seemingly mundane procedure has reminded me why I hate the government so much. After a decade, I had to apply for a new "Citizen's ID card", the most widely used ID in Czechia, and the new passport.

I don't remember a bureaucratic procedure of this kind that would be quite smooth but the experience today was much worse than the average.

"The Citizen's ID card" steps were tolerable – although being exposed to a bureaucrat who shows you how he or she is in charge is always annoying, much like taking photographs.

But the real story began with the passport application.

First of all, I was told that I would be obliged to return all my old passports, including one that expired in 2005. Now, I knew that I have seen the old passport in a folder a few years ago but I just couldn't swear that I wouldn't have thrown it away. My common sense tells me that a passport that has been expired for almost a decade (with visas that are also safely expired now) is nothing else than trash – and I could imagine that I have simply thrown it away as trash. Well, I probably didn't, I thought, but I couldn't have remembered clearly enough.

I remember that they try to take the old documents from you if that didn't mean any problem. However, back in Summer 2004, they just kindly allowed me to keep the old passport – suggesting that it was my right and an okay option and so on. They didn't tell me that their colleagues would threaten me with significant fines and with the criminal status if I wouldn't be able to find the passport exactly 10 years later.

In 2004, I kept it because someone told me that one may combine a valid passport with an expired passport containing valid visas. My passport that would get expired in 2005 (probably before the Summer, so I had to replace it already in Summer 2004) contained the F1 (tourist?) visas I would use for the first visit of Rutgers in Spring 1998, the B1 visas I would use as a Rutgers student, and the J1 visas I would use as a Harvard junior fellow. During this Summer 2004 in Czechia, I had to get a new "Citizen's ID card", a new passport, and the new H1B visas to become junior faculty. I wasn't sure whether they would give me the H1B visas – it has never been a formality, as far as I can say – and I wanted some increased chances that I would be able to get back to the U.S. to sort things in the case that my H1B visa request would be denied. And the B1 visa was valid up to 2007 which is why I kept the passport that contained it. Now, it could have been trouble.

Note that I have mentioned four different U.S. visas. Each of them represented at least two full days of tension, uncertainty, and humiliation at the U.S. embassy in Prague – and most of them required lots of additional updates, stamps at various offices in the U.S. and Czechia. (The problems with taxes and tax treaties were more time-consuming and expensive – by orders of magnitude – than this hassle.)

At any rate, if you allow me to return to Spring 2014, I just found the old passport in a folder at home (the most expected folder) almost immediately, so I won't become a criminal because of that. But the extended past for which the government expects you to keep every piece of a paper is scary. Companies like Google are being harassed so that they allow the European people to be "forgotten" etc. – but there's no one who is brave enough so that he would demand similar things from the real biggest octopus, the government.

Even if one accepts that it is a transgression or offense not to return a passport, I can't understand how this transgression may possibly fail to be time-barred after 9 years.


But the new long-lived passports are only issued with some biometric data – in the Czech case (and maybe the whole EU), ones about the shape of one's face and the fingerprints. And that was really yummy.

You know, I was pretty certain that it couldn't have been straightforward. Many times in the past, I analyzed the question whether dactyloscopy could have worked as well as advertised. Just to be sure, I have no doubts that for a vast majority of the people, the fingerprint contains sufficient information to identify the person at a 7-sigma confidence level, enough to be pretty certain that the person hasn't been confused with someone else.

But my fingerprints are not that clear and the interference patterns are not that numerous. The skin is pretty flat, like a bicycle tire after thousands of miles, and when the skin gets flattened, the fingerprints don't really recover in their previous glory. Moreover, I may sweat a bit, especially after the previous nerves about the expired passport.

If one focused on some particular features of the fingerprint, I am pretty sure that even the special features of my fingerprint – including its not being deep enough – would be enough to uniquely distinguish me. But it seemed unlikely to me that the one-size-fits-all algorithm they use is optimized for the features that make me special. To summarize, I was pretty sure that dactyloscopy wouldn't work for me too well.

Of course, the worries were confirmed. So we started with the index finger of the right hand. I put the finger on a glass. For five minutes, she was trying to read some information but it didn't work. My index finger isn't recognized as a human finger by their state-of-the-art gadget – she said something like that. I made sure that it's more or less completely dry and we repeated the procedure. It didn't help.

After five minutes of unsuccessful attempts to scan my index finger, we switch to the thumb of the right hand. To make the story brief, five additional minutes of failure followed. I was getting really nervous: These bastards would be really able not to give me a new passport just because the structure of the skin on my fingers doesn't agree with some sloppy ideas what the skin "should" look like.

The middle finger of the right hand (option #3) worked right away, and so did the (default) index finger of the left hand. But these ten minutes of torture with a result that wasn't guaranteed were very unpleasant. Moreover, I can imagine that whatever information they detected will fail to be confirmed by the same fingers in the future. Will they arrest me or shoot me because my fingerprints won't agree with those that got (barely?) read today? It will surely add some additional anxiety to all my traveling.

My shallow fingerprints may be correlated with some other health-related conditions – I tend to think that the biotin deficiency could be behind this, much like it could be the primordial reason for recurring problems with the Candida fungi (and perhaps even a cause behind things like keratoconus). But whatever these causes are, these are just my (genetic?) idiosyncrasies. The broader point is that there surely exist people – like your humble correspondent – whose physical parameters don't agree with some expectations based on the analysis of a certain number of average enough people. And we're being increasingly harassed by these obnoxious government's efforts to destroy the privacy of everyone and to squeeze everyone in a very tight straitjacket that is easily verifiable by the government.

Terrorists are bad and they may sometimes even kill other people and I appreciate (and mostly endorse) the concept of the fight against terrorists, and against other forms of crime. But I am afraid that this "cure" is among those that are worse than the disease.

Petr Hájek, the conservative journalist behind "Counterstream" [Protiproud] would publish many things that are often true and important; in other cases, they are weird conspiracy theories. One of the conspiracy theories he would recently publish was about the EU plans to implant chips to all newborn babies. As far as I can say, this news report is a hoax but I am afraid that we're not too far from the day when things like that will begin.

There are some electronic technologies I consider to be progress, like contact-free credit card payments that I began to use all the time. But most such options come with the huge risk that they may be used by someone evil – most likely the government – to attack not just the comfort but the quality of people's lives if not the lives themselves. Many totally innocent Russian users of Visa and MasterCard payment cards – no doubt, many of them must be big fans of America – were recently reminded of these threats when Visa and MasterCard were forced by the U.S. government to block much of their business in Russia. With the good old cash, the government didn't have this much power – which surely contributed to the fact that the world wasn't as screwed as it is today.


  1. The West's foreign policy co-operation - and by extension economic co-operation - towards Russia and China has been massively mismanaged in recent years. Ukraine is simply the latest round of gross political incompetence and misjudgement.

    Clearly, the USG under Obama must shoulder much of the blame for this. But other bit players, notably the British government under Cameron & Hague and more recently the EU & Merkel have a lot of blame too. Stirring up revolution in Ukraine, followed by blaming it all on Russia is now reaping its comeuppance.

    None of these arrogant dimwits can understand that to do mutually rewarding business with Russia and China one has to treat them with certain common respect, not treat them condescendingly. Again, the arrogance of John Kerry & Britain's William Hague towards Russia over Syria and now Ukraine has cost us plenty.

    How all of this will turnout isn't looking so good.

  2. American arrogance will undermine the American economy. Washington, by overspending and overborrowing, is flooding the world with dollars. To follow the dollar overseas in order to ensnare those who are acting according to their own laws is a tactic that will backfire. Washington, being the biggest debtor in history, is desperate to grab every penny it can. The political calculation is that Americans will applaud Washington for nailing the evil foreigner, but the halfwits like Obama who run things in Washington will only succeed in weakening American influence overseas.

  3. Haha, from the way he looks at me from the avatar, I always new that Boo is not only a very nice and friendly, but also a very clever being :-)

  4. All this begs the question: are black people capable of high civilization. Obama came from the civil right movement and it is just shocking to see how he is turning his back on that which made him possible. It seems that he fits right in with the African dictators.

  5. No the question is, are you capable of writing utterly asinine posts, and based on the above the answer is yes.

  6. Oh my god. Am I the only one who glanced at today's date immediately after reading this, to verify if it's april fools?

    I don't even understand this... Why should the usage of a symbol for a mathematical constant be up to these random people? And how can this U.S. patent be enforced on the world?!


    Trust your government. Even a blind dog eventually finds a bone.

  8. Yep, if these greedy trolls want to turn the world back to the illiterated dumb Dark Middle Ages, they just have to trademark, copyright, or whatever, evry letter in the alphabet of every language, every mathematical symbol, etc ... :-D

    Do they even know how ridiculous and off the mark this is?

    And this incident just proofs that some lawiers do not belong to the human race, they are rather comparable to dribbling for a goody dogs, or rep whores ;-), who do just anything for a goody (money)...

    I always wondered why what some crackpots or evil clowns in the US do or decide should negatively affect the whole rest of the world ... ;-)

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