22 August 2008

Too much information

The government has outsourced its data-losing responsibilities to a company called PA consulting, who have 'mislaid' a memory-stick containing the personal details of 84,000 people. This is clearly a much more efficient way of lose information, rather than the recent spate of laptops left on trains in the Surrey area; memory-sticks are small enough to fit into a pocket, or down the back of the coffee machine, which means it's extremely unlikely ever to turn up again. Presumably this will be the next line of defence the Home Office will try, to reassure people the data won't fall into the wrong hands, once it has stopped shouting "IT WAS ALL THE CONTRACTOR'S FAULT" at any journalist who'll listen.

Anger seemed to dissipate once it turned out the data lost was the private addresses of the entire UK's prison population. As audiences warranting public sympathy go, banged-up criminals would rank pretty low, somewhere just ahead of Gary Glitter. But in an attempt to keep the story alive the Conservative Party has been keen to imply that this exposed the government to being sued by those affected, which seemed a pretty desperate take on the facts. After all, last year the government lost even more sensitive personal data belonging to me, along with about 25 million other people, when two CD-ROMs went missing in transit between London and Newcastle. At no point did anyone imply, let alone advise me, that I might be entitled to sue the government for negligence and claim compensation.

To me the most surprising thing is not that data gets lost - given the numbers of people who come into contact with sensitive personal data held by the Government, it is inevitable. Rather it is the dizzying quantity of bytes that seems to go astray on every occasion. Why on earth did the worker in question need the personal data on every prisoner in the UK? What was he doing - compiling an HMP Christmas Card list? It's like the stationery manager of the Bank of England taking the entire national gold reserves to the corner shop, in case he doesn't have enough cash for a packet of paperclips.

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