Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Mischief managed on data protection

In Harry Potter speak, mischief media managed: the government officials who briefed the Times columnist David Aranovitch, ahead of Justice Minister Michael Wills disingenous speech on data sharing, will be giving themselves a pat on the back over his rant criticising the authors of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust report The Database State.

The minister's speech and the Times article are so full of holes and dogma that it's hard to know where to start, so instead I will quote from William Heath's clinical dissection of the article:
"You’ve managed to work out Michael WiIls works for the government. But you’ve eaten up his chocolate-covered waffle without a sceptical glance.
Mr Wills also accepts that government must take blame for the poor level of debate because it has too often been “overly defensive and dismissive of criticism. Government believes it is acting benignly and legally and has not adequately recognised the fears of those who believe this is not the case.”
This is tripe. The poor level of debate on technology in public services isn’t because the government hasn’t been shoutey enough. It’s because the government is too assertive and indulges in groupthink, failing to take other views into account. At a shallow level they have a good intention, but they fail to realise the less desirable consequences of their ill-thought-out implementation.
I wouldn’t say there’s a deep underlying malevolence, but the poor manner in which they engage with others who have a different good intention is tantamount to malevolence. Your article illustrates this very well.
Central to this is their documented failure to listen effectively to the views of scientists (not that I claim to be one, but my co-authors are) and also of service users and front-line practitioners. This is why NHS CfH has failed, as even the government now admits, and why the ID Scheme and ContactPoint will fail."
In addition I'd can't help extracting one small sample from the minister's speech:
"ContactPoint was developed in response to a key recommendation of Lord Laming's inquiry into the tragic death of Victoria ClimbiĆ©: to improve the exchange of information between different agencies working with children. But I am aware that ContactPoint has attracted a lot of interest and given rise to some concerns – and some misunderstandings. So Delyth Morgan and I want to hear views about ContactPoint from users and practitioners and explore these in light of the facts about the directory and feedback received from early adopters."
The UK government has been informed repeatedly and in great detail by world renowned security, information systems and child protection specialists that you cannot secure a database with the personal details of over 10 million people, when more than a third of a million people need to have routine access to that database as a regular part of their jobs.  Yet they are still talking about ContactPoint attracting "a lot of interest" and giving "rise to some concerns" and wanting to "hear views about ContactPoint".  This government has made such an art of collecting views on multiple policy areas, systematically ignoring them and dogmatically and blatantly continuing to pursue their ill-informed agenda, that it should not be a surprise that they are rolling out the same claptrap again.  It must be seriously annoying, however, for professionals who have invested a lot of effort in engaging and informing the government of the realities of modern technologies, to be subjected to the kind of attacks we hear from ministers and have seen in the Times this morning.  I'm annoyed and I wasn't even involved in writing the Rowntree report. Like William Heath I don't believe there is any deep underlying malevolence on the part of the government - most of them originally got into politics with the aim of helping people and making a difference.  But there comes a point at which the almost theological devotion to being 'on message', and the cultivation of blind ignorance in shutting out any information that contradicts that message, comes to have a malevolent effect.  Malevolence, intended or otherwise, becomes an emergent property of the system.

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