Monday, November 26, 2007

Why biometric ID is a bad idea

I'm not all that against the idea of an compulsory ID card. I mean, most of us carry around enough stuff with us anyway - driver licenses, bank cards, AA cards etc. that it makes no difference. And here in Spain (and elsewhere in much of Europe) everybody carries their photo ID (which you have to show when buying anything using a credit/debit card) and it's not a big deal.

However, I am very against the use of biometric data, such as fingerprints or iris data, for the purposes of identification. For one simple reason: once it is stolen, it cannot be reset.

If somebody gets hold of your bank card details, your PIN number, your passport number, your email, your drivers license etc. it's a pain, yes, but a quick phone call to relevant people and the old number/card/document is declared void, and you get a new one. If somebody steals your fingerprint, they have it for life. Furthermore, we leave our fingerprints on every single thing we touch. And yes, it really is that easy to make a copy, as the ever-reliable Ben Goldacre demonstrates.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Via Ferrata in Andorra

The rest of the piccies are here.

While Djanira was away in Madagascar over the summer, I popped back to London for a week or so, and one afternoon I ended up in Stanfords on Long Acre (as you do) where I happened upon a newish Cicerone guidebook entitled "The Mountains of Andorra". Within seconds of picking it up I was walking to the counter - it is a well-written summary of about 50 walks in the Andorran Pyrannees, and just what I was looking for. But the really interesting stuff was at the end of the book, a chapter describing the Via Ferrata of Andorra.

Via Ferrata is a style of climbing which, to paraphrase the guidebook description, "goes against the primary rule of the mountains (leave only footprints, take only photographs), but there is no denying it is a lot of fun". Essentially, a via ferrata ("iron way") is a metal cable which has been laid or strung up the side of mountain, for the purpose of the safety of people who wish to climb it. Basically, you clip a carabiner, attached to your climbing harness via a metre of rope to the cable, so if you happen to fall, the cable saves you from doing so to your death. The story goes that the original via ferrata were created to enable the Italian army to rapidly cross the Dolomites, and it is there that this style of mountaineering is still most famous (though, thanks to Helicopters, the army doesn't use them any more). Yet as the popularity of climbing and mountain sports in general increases, many other areas (such as Andorra) are spending the time and money creating Via Ferrata to increase tourism and boost the economy.

The construction of the Andorran ferrata has been quite a success. As a country, Andorra is blessed with a vast quantity of rock (it is right the middle of Pyrannees) but unfortunately much of it is quite shattered and not so suitable for pure rock-climbing. This is where the Via Ferrata comes in, as it lets you link the good bits of climbing by letting you quickly and safely scramble over the less attractive sections (you climb Ferrata with light walking boots). They are very generously equipped with metal rungs (more so than in the dolomites, so I've heard) so that if you can climb a ladder, you can reach the top. However, what this means is that they lead you into wildly overhanging and exposed territory (in climbing terms, places you'd need to be leading E-something to get to) and they are not for the faint of heart or those without a head for heights.

This weekend was a bank holiday weekend and so DJ and I spent four days in Andorra with some friends, did three via ferrata and a Very Long Walk. It was completely awesome, the last day in particular leading us up a mountain that is essentially one large cliff, finishing off with a tightrope suspension bridge. I say again, it was completely awesome, and we are hooked on this via ferrata stuff. It's going to have wait for a while now though as, despite this weekend's good weather, the first snows have reached Andorra already and everybody's fingers are crossed for a good ski-season. Still, there's no reason the ferrata can't be done in the snow!