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A catastrophic mistake
by Asa Butcher
2007-11-21 09:49:45
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"Let us be clear about the scale of this catastrophic mistake - the names, the addresses and the dates of birth of every child in the country are sitting on two computer discs that are apparently lost in the post, and the bank account details and National Insurance numbers of 10 million parents, guardians and carers have gone missing,” was the response of Britain’s Shadow Chancellor George Osborne yesterday.

You read his words correctly because yesterday the Chancellor Alistair Darling announced to a stunned House of Commons that the details of 25 million children have been lost on two password-protected CDs. This criminally irresponsible behaviour has been blamed upon mistakes by junior officials at HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC), who ignored security procedures when they sent information to the National Audit Office (NAO) for auditing.

This is the second case in the last few weeks of the British Government admitting that sensitive personal information has been misplaced, but the fact that on this occasion the details of every British child is either lost or, in a worst case scenario, in the hands of an individual or organisation prepared to abuse this incredibly sensitive data has send a shiver of anxiety down every British parent’s spine.

I don’t blame the Chancellor or the Government and I was surprised to hear that HMRC chairman Paul Gray immediately resigned after the incident came to light, but how are the citizens of Britain supposed to relax knowing that every child has been exposed to a credible threat? Parents trust that personal information is secure and the Data Protection Act is regularly promoted, yet this situation has caught everybody off-guard.

At a time when the British Government is pushing their Identity card agenda, a scheme that will collect an immense amount of data in one location, how can anybody now have faith in the security? Even the word ‘security’ has become hollow, which is frightening considering we are supposedly under threat from all manners of individuals out to undermine democracy and inflict terror.

As a British citizen living in Finland, I have often wondered about the henkilötunnus (personal code) that is employed by the country. It is the Finnish version of the National Insurance number of Social Security code, yet it is used everywhere. Banks, the doctor, the social security office, employers, the tax office and more use this code and it has often made me consider if there is a single database that follows my every move and who has access?

If this database exists, can the details of every citizen of Finland be saved on one CD? It took two CDs to hold the details of 25 million children, so it won’t take many megabytes for a country of five million and what if that disc ever went missing… One result of this highlights the fact that it doesn’t matter how many security protocols you implement, if the staff don’t adhere to them there is no point at all.

I just hope the repercussions of this catastrophic fiasco won’t be severe and I hope it has merely been the result of sloppy delivery, but it does raise many difficult questions for the British Government. These questions will demand answers, clearly visible answers that will rebuild some of the public’s trust, or the hope of ID cards will be lost just like the two CDs.

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Emanuel Paparella2007-11-21 15:28:44
Incompetent government bureaucracy will now blissfully assure themselves and their alarmed citizens that they will soon find the missing documents, look into the causes of the problem and fix it. But here is the irony and the paradox: research has made it abundantly clear that just as the ignorant, the incompetent in any field tend to be blissfully self-assured. That is so because the skills required for competence are often the very same skills necessary to recognize competence. The incompetent suffer from a double burden: not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. To say it with W.B.Yates, things fall apart,the center does not hold.

Sand2007-11-21 15:50:59
Considering the outright corruption across the entire spectrum of private corporate behavior and the sexual perversion revealed in the Catholic Church it seems that government bureaucracy merely joins the crowd and demonstrates that humanity as a whole has a strong streak of incompetence.

eetu2007-11-21 16:27:23
well, in finland the id number tells already information (date of birth), so i prefer not to imagine how much personal information is stored in some bunker in the woods.

Sand2007-11-21 17:12:55
One more important point. As information technology increases the power to store huge amounts of information in smaller and smaller packages this type of accident will become more frequent. It is certainly not unique even now as various institutions within the USA have already experienced similar losses. The information would not be dangerous, of course, if there were not so many knowledgeable crooks within civilization but solving that problem seems outside the capability of humanity. Humanity has proved extremely ingenious in devising ways to destroy itself. This is probably not the most dangerous one.

Emanuel Paparella2007-11-21 18:19:20
Ah, there is the rub Mr. Eetu, the unwillingness to imagine how perfectly innocuous information can be twisted by logical minds who mistake logic and technological know-how, devoid of the ethical and the human, for competence and then use it perversely for their biased slanderous ignorant attacks on an individual or even an entire institution or group of people. You have that phenomenon exhibited right here in front of you in the very comments under this editorial. The downing of the twin towers in New York was depicted in some novels but no government bureaucrat could imagine that it was actually possible to carry it out. There was a man in a hut in the woods in Montana, Mr. Kadinsky, otherwise known as the uni-bomber who did a lot with the information he gathered from a library but nobody had the imagination to envision where the monster was and whom he might be. He has a Ph.D. in mathematics and thought of himself as a rational intelligent competent bomber, above the herd of ordinary people were too stupid to catch him. He also had a Ph.D. in mathematics. He was a nihilist parading as a genius of sort. We'd be better off had those kind of "intelligent" people never gone to school.

Sand2007-11-21 18:38:46
Poor Kadinski. Some people confuse this person with the famous painter Kandinski, and some fools accuse poor Anik Kadinski of living in a hut in the woods and sending out bombs. Ted Kacynski, of course, did those deeds. But there are some PH.D.'s who simply cannot be trusted and spend their time in Kadinski bashing. Obviously, some Ph.D.s are not to be trusted. The problem is, which one is which? Maybe Nazi and Italian Ph.D.s are dangerous. I doubt that they are intelligent but you never know. Shalom.

Emanuel Paparella2007-11-21 19:12:03

Alexandra Pereira2007-11-22 02:45:19
no comments... (on article, of course).

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