Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

21 November 2007

A government that minds its own business but not yours

What are we to make of the HMRC (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) missing CD-ROM scandal: the fact that someone popped a copy of half the UK’s personal details in the ordinary internal mail to the Audit Office and it’s now gone missing?

Nothing, possibly. It could just be a case of inexperience on the part of a junior subordinate. However, the mere fact that someone could even think it was acceptable to pop an unencrypted copy of intimate details about millions of families and their finances into the post and not even make it a recorded delivery is barely believable. Have they not got a secure, encrypted government data network they could use? If not, why not courier it from door to door to make sure it got there?

For me, it bespeaks an insufficient exercise of the government’s duty of care, which is something that should filter down to the lowest levels of the civil service. In this instance, inadequate regard was paid to the personal, human significance of the lost data to the people the government is supposed to be looking after. What was done involves regarding the data that was copied and sent in this way as just another bit of data: ‘well, if it doesn’t get there, we can always make another copy’. But it’s not just data: it’s precious, private information about people’s lives, which needs to be protected at all costs.

You can bet your bottom tax dollar that the government takes more precautions over its own secret data. Well, at least you’d like to think so; but maybe the next scandal to break will be someone leaving a laptop on a train containing all that the security services know about the 2,000-odd terrorist suspects in the UK they keep going on about. I don’t think so, though, do you? This government looks after its official secrets all right, just not yours and mine.

Alistair Darling tried to claim that the identity-card system they want to bring in will safeguard the sort of information that has been lost. How? What difference would everyone’s being issued with ID cards have made to the incident that has taken place? I can’t see the connection. It’s about administrative processes and enshrining in those processes an almost zealous determination to protect people’s intimate information as a sacred trust. But, of course, the type of information that will be gathered and stored via the ID-card system won’t be (just) mere bagatelles such as bank accounts, addresses, and names and ages of children: it will also involve ‘classified’ information such as criminal record, biometrics and, maybe, a means to access the entire history of a citizen’s interaction with the agencies of government and the public sector (medical records; births and marriages records; schooling; etc.) – basically, a card cloner’s or hacker’s dream!

I’m sure the government will take a lot more care over information of that sort, so vital for national security (but even so . . .). It’s just the information that’s vital for your security that can be dealt with in such a cavalier way. This government minds its own business, including looking after everything that it thinks it needs to know about yours – but it won’t mind yours.

And yet, the information that has been lost could have implications for national security as well as the personal security of many millions. Who knows, it might have been a terrorist inside job and, instead of being mailed to ‘The Audit Office, London’, the package could have winged its way to somewhere on the borders of Pakistan and Afghanistan – or to a PC from where it could be distributed worldwide. The data that’s been lost could certainly be extremely valuable to the likes of Al-Qaeda or to cyber-terrorists. Maybe, instead of distrusting its own citizenry, the government could begin by taking care of the information its citizens have entrusted to it; and maybe, if it wants to gather in one place (around the ID card) so much additional information about us all, it could start by ensuring that the information it already has is secure.

The government should put its own house in order if it wants us to trust it over things like control orders and 56 days’ detention without charge. As this incident demonstrates, national security, it seems, begins at our homes.

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