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Mistakes were made

This week we got the detail on what went wrong at Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs that led to the loss of those two CDs full of the personal details of 25 million British households last year with the release of the Poynter Review (PDF). We also got a hint of how and whether the future might be different with the publication yesterday of Data Handling: Proecures in Government (PDF), written by Sir Gus O'Donnell and commissioned by the Prime Minister after the HMRC loss. The most obvious message of both reports: government needs to secure data better.

The nicest thing the Poynter review said was that HMRC has already made changes in response to its criticisms. Otherwise, it was pretty much a surgical demonstration of "institutional deficiencies".

The chief points:

- Security was not HMRC's top priority.

- HMRC in fact had the technical ability to send only the selection of data that NAO actually needed, but the staff involved didn't know it.

- There was no designated single point of contact between HMRC and NAO.

- HMRC used insecure methods for data storage and transfer.

- The decision to send the CDs to the NAO was taken by junior staff without consulting senior managers - which under HMRC's own rules they should have done.

- The reason HMRC's junior staff did not consult managers was that they believed (wrongly) that NAO had absolute authority to access any and all information HMRC had.

- The HMRC staffer who dispatched the discs incorrectly believed the TNT Post service was secure and traceable, as required by HMRC policy. A different TNT service that met those requirements was in fact available.

- HMRC policies regarding information security and the release of data were not communicated sufficiently through the organization and were not sufficiently detailed.

- HMRC failed on accountability, governance, information security...you name it.

The real problem, though, isn't any single one of these things. If junior staff had consulted senior staff, it might not have mattered that they didn't know what the policies were. If HMRC used proper information security and secure methods for data storage (that is, encryption rather than simple password protection), they wouldn't have had access to send the discs. If they'd understood TNT's services correctly, the discs wouldn't have gotten lost - or at least been traceable if they had.

The real problem was the interlocking effect of all these factors. That, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb might say, was the black swan.

For those who haven't read Taleb's The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, the black swan stands for the event that is completely unpredictable - because, like black swans until one was spotted in Australia, no such thing has ever been seen - until it happens. Of course, data loss is pretty much a white swan; we've seen lots of data breaches. The black swan, really, is the perfectly secure system that is still sufficiently open for the people who need to use it.

That challenge is what O'Donnell's report on data handling is about and, as he notes, it's going to get harder rather than easier. He recommends a complete rearrangement of how departments manage information as well as improving the systems within individual departments. He also recommends greater openness about how the government secures data.

"No organisation can guarantee it will never lose data," he writes, "and the Government is no exception." O'Donnell goes on to consider how data should be protected and managed, not whether it should be collected or shared in the first place. That job is being left for yet another report in progress, due soon.

It's good to read that some good is coming out of the HMRC data loss: all departments are, according to the O'Donnell report, reviewing their data practices and beginning the process of cultural change. That can only be a good thing.

But the underlying problem is outside the scope of these reports, and it's this government's fondness for creating giant databases: the National Identity Register, ContactPoint, the DNA database, and so on. If the government really accepted the principle that it is impossible to guarantee complete data security, what would they do? Logically, they ought to start by cancelling the data behemoths on the understanding that it's a bad idea to base public policy on the idea that you can will a black swan into existence.

It would make more sense to create a design for government use of data that assumes there will be data breaches and attempts to limit the adverse consequences for the individuals whose data is lost. If my privacy is compromised alongside 50 million other people's and I am the victim of identity theft does it help me that the government department that lost the data knows which staff member to blame?

As Agatha Christie said long ago in one of her 80-plus books, "I know to err is human, but human error is nothing compared to what a computer can do if it tries." The man-machine combination is even worse. We should stop trying to breed black swans and instead devise systems that don't create so many white ones.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).


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