The record of lost data of the past few years should be a warning to us all: our personal details are safe in nobody’s hands
Here’s an easy question. What do the following have in common – people on housing benefit, people getting child benefit, people wanting to be RAF pilots or Royal Marines, people in hospital and people learning to drive? The answer is that they have all had their personal details lost through government incompetence. And here’s another question. With the national database for ID cards looming, just how much do you trust the government to keep your identity details safe?
News flies past our eyes so fast, in a blur of exclamation marks and excitement, it is often hard to keep track, to join the stories together. So it’s useful to go back and remember. In this case, we only need to go back to last year when the child benefit records for a mere 25 million people, including dates of birth, national insurance numbers and bank and building society details, were lost by HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). It happened in October, when a junior official sent the information on two CDs by the private courier TNT to the National Audit Office. They failed to arrive and have still not been found.You might think: well, a one-off, any organisation makes the odd mistake. As it happens, the HMRC had lost details of 15,000 people when they were sent to Standard Life the previous month. Also in September an HMRC laptop was lost with the details of 400 Isa holders on it. Remember that this is not just any government organisation, but the one meant to be trusted, holding the crown jewels of our financial lives. And there were other similar incidents, going back at least to 2005. Indeed, according to parliamentary answers HMRC had in the previous year been responsible for a modest 2,111 data-protection breaches.
Then in December it was revealed that more computer discs had gone missing, this time in transit between local authorities and the Department for Work and Pensions, involving the same courier. This time the number of personal details involved was unclear, but it was large. One council, Kirklees, lost CDs with 45,000 names of people claiming housing benefit. At about the same time, nine English NHS trusts admitted losing the records of hundreds of thousands of patients.
Next up, learner drivers. Ruth Kelly, the transport secretary, had to admit that the records of 3 million people who had sat driving tests from September 2004 to April 2007 had been lost from a hard disc in Iowa. Like the child benefit discs, the details had not been properly encrypted and, again, a “total error in procedure” was blamed.
This year has begun in the same vein. On Friday, hundreds of documents containing details of benefit claims, photocopies of passports and mortgage payments were found dumped at a roundabout near Exeter airport. And on the same day we learned about the loss of a Ministry of Defence laptop containing passport, national insurance and banking details of 600,000 people who had expressed some interest in joining the Royal Navy, Marines or RAF. There is talk of a court martial and Des Browne will be making a statement in the Commons today. But surely, after one ear-splitting, headline-grabbing warning after another, from different departments, month after month, there might be a bigger lesson here, one that goes beyond tightening this procedure or that, one rather larger in scope than internal inquiries or even prosecutions, can deal with?
Remember that this year the full national identity register, the essential core of a compulsory ID card scheme, will get properly started: from now, anyone aged over 16 applying for a passport has all their details, fingerprints, face or eye scans included, added to the register. Foreigners coming to work here get the first ID cards this year too, and although for the next two years people can opt out of having the cards, from 2010 anyone renewing or getting a passport will be included. The cards, and thus your involvement in the national identity register (which will be stored on three government databases) don’t become compulsory until after the next election – if Labour wins it. And nobody has told us if carrying the things will be compulsory too – though plenty of the arguments in favour of them fall if you don’t have to carry them.
Legally, this is all done and dusted. After five defeats in the Lords the parliamentary process is over, the scheme is taking shape, big IT contracts have been signed and the computer industry have been snarling at the Tories and Lib-Dems for threatening to ditch it. Ministers still think they are on to a winner.
Well, it seems to me that after the events of the past few months, they are wrong and that any voter who notices the news already knows what will happen. We know that millions of sensitive details will be lost. We know that material of huge use to criminals will be sent in the post, stolen, mislaid, dropped in car parks, will fall off the back of lorries and will be sent by accident to radio talkshow hosts. We know this because whatever the system, whatever the rules, from Tyne and Wear to Iowa City, they are operated by humans. And people get bored, tired, drunk, have bad days, think they’re about to be fired, are greedy and, in general, make mistakes.
The government is going to introduce a single system for all our identities. And I promise, you can’t trust it. First, it will leak like a battered old bucket. Oh yes, there will be ministerial statements. Apologies. Inquiries. Expensive new IT consultants will be brought in. Tough and unbreakable procedures will arrive. And still it will leak like a battered old bucket – except that it will be the most expensive battered old bucket in the history of the world, and we will keep pouring in money to the IT industry in the years to come.
Second, it will be riddled with errors. Great-grannies will be jumped on by armed police at Newcastle airport because of an administrative or human error. Identities will be confused. And third, whatever promises there are about keeping some things, health things, or criminal record things, off one database, these walls will be breached. There is always an emergency, a special case, on the way.
This is a fantasy of control. Whatever Des Browne says today, whatever promises he makes, however rare and unusual he says the loss of this laptop was, the truth is in the record. The national identity register will make us less safe, not more so. However late the hour, it should be scrapped.