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Sunday 25 November 2007

Revenue data scandal is a welcome wake-up call

Disaster is a mouse click away as governments press for centralised databases, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

SOMEONE should erect a statue to the junior official at Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC), who popped in the post unregistered two unencrypted CDs containing key personal and financial details of 25 million people -- 40 per cent of the British population.

The ensuing scandal of the lost data is causing the British people to wake-up and start talking about personal privacy and data security.

I hope the Irish are anxious too. Certainly, Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes has made it bleakly clear that what happened last week in Britain could happen here. "We've been warning for years," he said, "about the danger of information about us, previously held in silos in the public sector, being brought together in centralised databases and accessible to large numbers of public servants."

Technological progress is happening faster than we can deal with it and if we don't try to understand its potential dangers to our freedom and security, disaster lies ahead.

I am no Luddite. I've been computerised for years, I treasure the internet, virtually all my correspondence is by e-mail, I love my BlackBerry, and one of these days I will master my i-Pod. But I've also had a hard disk wiped out by a virus, a computer and a laptop stolen and I know something of how technology invades one's privacy and how easy we make it for computer-literate criminals to rob our money and steal our identity.

Britain has been peculiarly vulnerable. Since 1997 it has had a government with no understanding of how to run anything, a prime minister, Tony Blair, who loved modernisation, innovation and novelty, had no interest in detail and never knowingly considered the law of unintended consequences, and, as all-powerful Chancellor, a control freak and micro-manager who wants every person in the country to be in some way dependent on public funds.

Chuck in Islamist terrorism and you produced the perfect recipe for eroding civil liberties.

At this defining moment politicians might ruminate upon the following:

  1. It is folly to go down the technological path just for the hell of it. There should always be a compelling reason to change a system that works.
  2. There is no such thing as absolute data security, since there is no code that cannot be broken, no password that cannot be discovered and no information that can't be retrieved.
  3. Centralisation for centralisation's sake is pointless and dangerous. Consider the example of the National Health Service centralised computer system. The idea is that a Glaswegian who falls ill in Cambridge will have his medical records instantly available. Result!
    However, that system is also the end of privacy. If your medical records are computerised in your GP's practice you will be one of 10,000 patients and perhaps 13 people have access to the records: once you're put on the central computer you'll be there along with 50 million others and with perhaps 300,000 having access.
  4. Civil servants and politicians haven't a clue about information technology, are easy prey for jargon-spouting IT evangelists and are hopeless at negotiating contracts.
  5. It is in the interests of consultants to recommend problems be solved with expensive and complex technology that can be installed and run only by them.
  6. Why not call on the free services of public-spirited businessmen to advise officials and ministers on how to avoid and deal with sharks?
  7. Don't radically change institutions of the State -- in the interests of saving money -- unless you know exactly what you are doing.
  8. Cultivate humility, accept that politicians don't have all the answers, forget the grandiose schemes, simplify tax, welfare and all other systems in the interests of cutting bureaucracy and stop asking the public nosy questions just because you can.
  9. Bear in mind how over-centralisation and a lack of respect for individual privacy enabled one careless official to destroy in a moment, Gordon Brown's (undeserved) reputation for competence and his plans for ID cards. Hurrah!

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards