By Jason Burke and Peter Warren
Farewell to black gloves, swag bags and crowbars. Deodorants will soon be the burglar’s preferred tool.
Government scientists are evaluating new technology that allows people to be identified by body odour, making the tracing of criminals by their unique whiff, whether of fear, greed or excitement, a possibility within years.
A leaked memo from the Government’s top-secret GCHQ centre lists a series of ‘biometric technologies’ that have been tested by government specialists for possible use in the UK. The list includes one ‘esoteric proposal’ to identify individuals by their smell.
Biometric technologies, which effectively use the body itself as a password, are increasingly popular. New security concerns over terrorism and illegal international immigration have accelerated the search for more effective ways to pinpoint individuals in a hi-tech world. Recent reports from the Department of Trade and Industry and law enforcement authorities in America have listed ‘identity theft’ as the fastest-growing type of crime and have highlighted ‘biometrics’ as a way to stay ahead of the thieves.
Yet such technologies also have a whole variety of ‘civilian’ applications and could soon be a part of our everyday lives. Cars fitted with the right equipment could identify certain drivers by their smell and refuse to start for people they do not recognise. Computers could fail to boot up unless a user’s own pong matched that programmed into a sensor.
The leaked memo, Security Enforcement Notice 03/04, was compiled two months ago by the Communications Electronics and Security Group at GCHQ, the government spy centre. It describes a series of ‘commonly used’ technologies, including ‘face recognition’ as well as the analysis of hand and finger geometry, voices and eyes, as ‘under research’. Gait, retina patterns and ear-shape are also being looked at, the memo says.
‘Body odour’ and ‘skull resonance’ – by which sound waves are passed through a head to produce a unique sonar profile – are also listed as possibilities. Government sources confirmed this weekend that both had been ‘evaluated’ as part of an investigation of biometric identity systems.
Biometrics are nothing new, with fingerprints being used for over 100 years as a form of identification. One modern technology under development analyses ‘keyboard dynamics’ – an individual’s typing speed and repertoire of mistakes.
But smell is seen by security experts as having great potential. Every person produces an odour with a different chemical formula. And we all smell all the time, even if the smell is not detectable by the untrained nose.
Our odour is largely produced by the bacteria on our skin and our pheromones, the chemical we produce to signal to others of the same species. The great advantage for law enforcement is that, however hard we scrub or cover ourselves in deodorant, we cannot entirely obscure our own ‘sniff signature’.
Various identification techniques using body odour have been evaluated by government experts, security sources told The Observer. Most depend on users holding the palm of their hand against a sensor that can recognise their unique and complex scent once it has been broken down into a complex algorithm. Once someone’s body odour has been registered, it could be entered on a card, such as a credit or identity card, or on a document such as a passport.
‘It may sound completely ridiculous, but it’s a fantastic way of identifying people. It’s almost impossible to fake or duplicate someone’s own personal pong. It’s certainly a lot more efficient than everyone trying to remember dozens of PIN numbers,’ said one private security expert. ‘And no one is going to force you at knife-point to divulge the secrets of your body odour to let them withdraw money from your cashpoint or drive your car off.’
Qinetiq, the technology research company that was formerly a government agency, confirmed to The Observer that it has an expert who deals with the degradation of human bacterial cell culture on the skin.
Some security experts anticipate the technology will develop sufficiently to allow police to identify an individual in a large crowd purely on their scent.
Biometrics are at the heart of a new plan by the Government to introduce a nationwide identity card. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, has said that he wants to introduce a card, possibly based on technology that scans people’s irises, as a key part of a £3 billion plan to combat terrorism, immigration and benefit fraud. A pilot scheme, which starts next month, will involve 10,000 volunteers receiving personalised smartcards containing biometric information – initially a digital image of their faces based on a passport photograph.
The Passport Agency is struggling to meet tough new requirements in new US anti-terrorist legislation which will require all visitors to the US who do not have a visa to have a biometric in their passport. Three options are being tested for use within years: iris, face and fingerprint recognition.The use of iris patterns or fingerprints on ID cards, says the Home Secretary, ‘will make identity theft and multiple identity impossible – not nearly impossible, impossible.’
However, the memo advises government departments not to use the technology for their own internal use in checking and identifying their own staff, because of doubts over its efficiency, and government advisers are privately saying that it would be best to wait for at least three years for biometric technology to ‘mature’ . The rush to introduce unproven biometric technologies has angered some MPs.
Mark Oaten, Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary, said that the Home Office had ‘put the cart before the horse in pretending that it can build a £3bn system on the back of technology which is still in development’.
All biometrics, however, remain controversial with civil liberties groups unhappy about ‘Big Brother’ aspects of mass storage of identifying information.
Attempts to build a database of the population’s smells would be fiercely opposed, not least by the people whose job it was to go around the nation compiling it.
‘It’s not exactly the world’s most glamorous job,’ said one scientist last week. ‘You’d spend years of your life working out how we all whiff.’
Published 28th of December, 2003, The Observer