Who do you think you are?

Another day, another story about which the Great British press haven’t a clue – are literally clueless. Though why shouldn’t they be?

It is, after all, ”merely” one more story about a whingeing tranny, complaining about trivial stuff, and like as not on the make – one eye on the compensation prize that is “political correctness gone ma-a-a-d”! (Is it just me, or do you, too, hear a cackle of maniacal laughter whenever you type that phrase, nowadays).

Which is a pity, because behind the flip headlines lies an issue that is deadly serious and will, in time, come to affect us all. The headline is about a trans police officer suing Essex police because a control room operator “outed” her on air. The real issue, though, is identity. And security.

Entity and entitlement

At first sight, the standard script has something to be said for it. The facts appear to be that when checking in with her control room, PC Emma Chapman was challenged as to her identity because she “sounded like a man”. Big deal, I hear the general public muttering already. Get over it.

Only my own experience of dealing with identity cases – far from all, or even most to do with the trans community – is that this really IS a big deal. There you are, happily pottering along, just being you and suddenly, doing the weekly shop, taking money from the bank, almost anywhere, your identity is challenged and denied.

On its own, that’s a delicious philosophical conundrum, guaranteed to keep the average semi-stoned teenager up all night: like, how do I know who I really am, man? In practical terms its something else. Identity is about entitlement: literally, it’s a statement that you are an entity – the “same entity” – who is entitled to a raft of rights and privileges you take pretty much for granted.

You, now, are the same person who spent your life putting money into Bank Account X and you are therefore the person entitled now to draw from it. Ditto your marriage, parenthood, health insurance. You name it: THAT is what identity is about. Continuity of privilege.

Security matters in Essex

In the case of PC Chapman, it was about calling on her right as a police officer to be given immediate assistance. She may or may not have been in difficulty. That is not stated. But on making a call to Police control and being doubted as to her identity, that’s potentially dangerous, definitely traumatic. And while I don’t minimise the hurt that most trans peeps feel on being misgendered, in this case, the identity check also had potential other consequences. Help not being dispatched when it was needed.

Perpetrators seizing on her admission to trans status and using it against her.

Still, that’s not quite the issue. The real problem here lies in the pisspoor security that Essex police seem to have had in place if this was in any way standard procedure. “You sound like a bloke”.

“No I’m not, I’m trans”.

“Oh, OK then”.

If the question mattered, how did that in any way solve the dilemma? Or if it didn’t matter, why was it asked in the first place?

The bases of insecurity

That’s key because voice testing is something that a fair few mega-corps are trialling right now. If you want to access your rights via any sort of call centre, there are the obvious security checks (ranging from password to mother’s maiden name) that may be thrown at you. In the jargon of the industry, you may be subjected to “five-factor authentication”, which covers something you know, something you have, somewhere you are, something you trust or, as in this case, something YOU are.

That’s a check for physical characteristic, from prints (iris, finger, even earlobe), through to voice recognition. Software may be used to suss out whether you happen to be “stressed” by the call – although these are not without their drawbacks.

As one disability activist pointed out when this issue first arose, the ordinary everyday stress of navigating a world designed for the non-disabled might be enough to generate a false positive on that front: if true, it is possible that such an approach is inherently discriminatory, since it will tend to deliver proportionally more false positives in respect of disabled persons than non-disabled ones.

Some call centres encourage operators to throw in extra challenges whenever their suspicions are roused. That, too, runs the risk of opening up claims of discrimination, from the trans community, if operators are routinely challenging on whether a voice sounds like the “wrong gender”: also from racial and ethnic minorities, if operators get into the habit of challenging people whose English is less than perfect.

It’s a minefield, which stretches pretty seamlessly all the way into my long-running campaign against current obnoxious procedures that many organisations have in place for managing “name change”. Actually, in law, not name “change”, but a change of name details, which is technically different, but raises many of the same issues .

These are, quite simply, that most procedures for checking identity, or for managing identity where name details change, are discriminatory. In the latter case, massively discriminatory against women. That would not be an issue if the procedures were reasonable in respect of the stated aim.

Challenging the real tricksters: big biz and gov

It is around now in the argument that all manner of clueless commentators start to wheel out the i-word and the s-word. Its all about security, stoopid! And identity. That’s the mantra, faced with which, all criticism is meant to evaporate instantly.

Except, it isn’t. About real security, that is. The vast majority of procedures put in place by Megacorp and Bigbrov UK are patently useless. They do next to nothing to deter or catch the genuinely criminal – yet make life for almost everyone else just that bit less comfortable, more inconvenient.

(And if you think life is inconvenient now, just wait until Tory plans to embed demands for proof of entitlement into a raft of UK services, from NHS to benefits, takes a hold: Labour’s daft ID card scheme may have been killed off – but Tory “proof of identity” is every bit as nasty. It just uses different parameters).

Only: who would dare to challenge organisations who are doing such stuff just to keep us safe from scroungers, con artists and identity fraudsters? The very idea! As well to challenge motherhood. Or apple pie.

The trick – the perceptual shift adopted by security experts I speak to regularly on such topics – is not to back off at the first use of such mush-words, but to push back hard with a word or two of your own. How? And why?

How does challenging someone as to their gender, then giving ground the moment they claim transsexuality, in any way enhance security? How do the myriad checks and demands for documentation we have become increasingly used to “prove” identity?

Its not enough for those in charge to assert. Because if the person you are talking to can’t answer such questions easily, the chances are they don’t know, the answer is not clear, and in all likelihood, the procedure has less to do with security and far more to do with institutional back-covering.

In short, look for clues and if, like much of the British press, an official turns out to be clueless over identity procedures, don’t hesitate to call them on it. Chances are, if they sound like an idiot, they probably are: and you don’t need sophisticated software to confirm that.


About janefae

On my way from here to there
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