Monday, December 17, 2007

UK government refuses to listen on data management

Kieron Poynter of PriceWaterhouseCoopers did publish his interim report today into the failures that led to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) losing 25 million confidential records about UK citizens claiming child benefit. The reaction of the government to the report is yet another clear indication that they just refuse to listen on the subject of large databases. The Foundation for Information Policy Research says:

"The Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR) believes that
the Government's response to the interim Poynter report shows that
they just don't understand what has gone wrong. Their refusal to
abandon the headlong rush towards Transformational Government -- the
enormous centralised databases being built to regulate every walk of
life -- is not just pig-headed but profoundly mistaken.

Both Alasdair Darling, commenting on the HMRC fiasco, and Ruth Kelly,
telling the House about the loss of 3 million people's personal
information, told us that once `lessons have been learned' and
`procedures tightened' the march to ever-larger database systems will

Before Transformational Government came along, only small amounts of
data were lost -- but as the new databases cover the whole population,
everyone's affected now, not just a few unlucky people.

Transformational Government means putting all of the eggs into one
basket and it is creating:

* The multi-billion pound identity card scheme, to hold data on the
whole population

* The National Health spine, which will make everyone's health records
available for browsing by a million NHS workers

* ContactPoint which will record details on every child in England,
with details of their parents, carers and indicators of whether they
have any contact with social services. Three hundred thousand people
can look that information up.

* A universal pensioner's bus pass scheme which will hold the data on
17 million people, and in principle will let any bus driver learn
your age and address -- when all that it should record is an
entitlement to free travel.

Ross Anderson, Chair of FIPR and Professor of Security Engineering at
the University of Cambridge said, "the Government believes that you
can build secure databases and let hundreds of thousands of people
access them. This is nonsense -- we just don't know how to build such
systems and perhaps we never will. The correct way to design such
systems is to localise the data, in a school, in your local GP
practice. That way when there is a compromise because of a technical
failure or a dishonest user then the damage is limited.

"You can have security, or functionality, or scale -- you can even
have any two of these. But you can't have all three, and the
Government will eventually be forced to admit this. In the meantime,
billions of pounds are being wasted on gigantic systems projects that
usually don't work, and that place citizens' privacy and safety at
risk when they do."

Richard Clayton, FIPR Treasuer said, "Personal data ought to be
handled as if it were little pellets of plutonium -- kept in secure
containers, handled as seldom as possible, and escorted whenever it
has to travel. Should it get out into the environment it will be a
danger for years to come. Putting it into one huge pile is really
asking for trouble. The Government needs to completely rethink its
approach and abandon its Transformational Government disaster.""

As I said in my letter to my MP,

"This privacy timebomb cannot be allowed to be forgotten to tick away merrily once the media frenzy has moved on to some other government failure or failures, as it inevitably will. It is important that we begin to call a halt to the government's deployment of technological systems they don't understand, in contexts and environments to which they are ill suited, and constructed in ways which if suggested by an entry level computer science student would cause him/her to receive a fail grade. The government are not merely failing with these systems, however, they are doing untold damage to the fabric of our society."

No comments: