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Not as bad as all that?

I am old enough to remember the run-up to the 1979 general election, and a lot of what swung that for Thatcher was the feeling that our country seemed about to descend into a state of South Americanness. This extraordinary lost data discs business is, I think, particularly wounding to the Brown regime, for it gives off that same vibe, of a government descending into anarchy, and not in a good way. The whole world is now sniggering at Britain.

However, good news for Brown comes from a commenter on this posting at Guido’s:

There are about 13million children under the age of 16, most of whom have two parents. So that gives us about 25million individuals listed. However, only about a quarter of these will have bank details listed, so the BBC’s claims that the bank details of 25million people have been lost is actually misleading. It is probably about 7million.

Oh, only seven million. That’s okay then.

This comment reminds me of an amazing peacenik meeting I once attended, almost as long ago as the 1979 election, in which the speakers on the platform all took it in turns to explain how ghastly a nuclear explosion over a built-up area would be and that therefore we should chuck away our nuclear weapons, and a particularly bonkers middle-aged woman in the audience, called Daphne if I remember it right, got up to explain that actually, if you got lucky with the prevailing wind, and if proper civil defence measures were taken, it might not be that bad. The looks on the faces of the platform speakers were truly treasurable. I got up and said that the speakers certainly had me convinced me that nuclear war would indeed be rather nasty, and how about the replacement of Soviet communism with liberal democracy, as the least implausible way to end the nastiness? But that’s another story.

Getting back to this lost discs thing, I agree with everyone else here who is, quite rightly making such a fuss of this business. Don’t collect the damn data into these huge compulsory gobs in the first place.

Whatever David Cameron, says now

Mr Cameron said people were “desperately worried” and they would “find it frankly weird” that Mr Brown still wanted to go ahead with plans for a national ID cards scheme and register.

… his conclusion if and when he becomes Prime Minister (which this whole thing makes that much more likely) will presumably be that it will be a sufficient answer for his noble self to be in charge of the government’s compulsory databases, and that all will then be well.

But it does occur to me, just as Black Wednesday saved the pound from being swallowed up by the Euro – which it surely did, whatever you think about that – this fiasco might just have done something similar to the database state. Not abolished it, or even reversed it seriously, but at least thrown a bit of a spanner into its works. Suddenly, ID cards are looking truly scary, combining malevolence with incompetence – Soviet even – to Mr and Mrs Average. I wrote that before reading what Guy Herbert said in the previous posting but one here, and I see that he reaches an identical conclusion. If so, good. Campaign for Database Disarmament anybody?

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17 comments to Not as bad as all that?

  • The other way of looking at it is this: twenty five million people’s personal details have been lost. Eighteen million of those people are children. This is perhaps better in the sense of potential financial fraud, as children don’t generally have their own independent financial existence (at least not in a significant way). In the sense of other kinds of fraud and possible nefarious use of the data, it is probably worse. “Think about the children” is usually a penicious argument, but it might not be here.

  • As I understand it, the data lost is a list of child benefit recipients and their addresses and the names of their children, plus bank account details, DOBs and NI numbers.

    It therefore includes a list of childrens’ addresses. Now which groups of people are most likely to find that useful for various nefarious reasons?

    Kidnappers, terrorists and paedophiles spring to mind!

    Of course we don’t know what has happened to the CDs. They could have fallen behind a radiator for all we know.

    But the government’s claim that biometrics will help protect this data is disingenuous. The biometrics will at best make it more difficult for someone to pretend to be another person, but that only deals with one class of data misuse.

    If we had the NIR set up right now with everyone using biometric ID, there would still be significant risks posed by this data falling into the wrong hands.

  • Perhaps the most likely use for the data is as the basis for identity theft.

    Many of those on the list will be from families with low take-up of financial services, therefore they may not notice that Junior’s 18th birthday triggers an increasing sequence of card and loan applications against their untrammelled credit history.

    (http://www.poverty.org.uk/44/index.shtml reckons only 11% of low income households have bank/post office accounts)

    In which case, the losers will be the other customers of credit card companies and banks.

    Let’s hope the disks are down the back of a shelf in an obscure sorting office.

  • Richard Beddal

    We will have identity because the EU wants them. What the EU wants it gets.

  • spidly

    well it is obvious. not enough money has been thrown out there. you need more responsible employees and that means better pay. even then there should be a whole new layer of bureaucracy to oversee these new and improved employees.

    more taxation, that’ll fix it.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    In the Times (of London) today, a poll done a few days ago shows public support for ID cards has collapsed. It was already falling as the justifications for these cards kept changing and became ever more pathetic. The public smell a rat, they sense that these cards are a gimmick at best and at worst, designed to spread the reach of big government into every facet of our lives.

    It may be naive to hope that this data fiasco will be, in retrospect, the event that helped to halt the juggernaut of the Big Brother state; we should never under-estimate the fanaticism of those who want to undermine the English Common law, our freedoms and our privacy. But they have suffered a massive blow to their aims.

  • Benjamin

    That said, there is a big difference, in terms of numbers, between 7 million and 25 million people having their bank details possibly disclosed, and people should try to get the facts right.

  • I do not believe that national ID cards are any kind of answer but I have come around to the libertarian-counterintutive belief that an anonymous society in which people feel themselves surrounded by strangers, feeds the growth of the centralized state.

    I noticed some years back in comparing political views in a small rural town, which is essentially a peer-to-peer surveillance society and the political views of people from large cities. In small towns, everyone knows your business but they retain a strong belief that individuals can and should make their own decisions about most things. In large cities, nobody knows anything about anybody and the politics emphasize minute state regulation of everything. (Only in matters of sex does this pattern reverse.)

    It seems that anonymity breeds fear of others which in turn causes people to vote for a powerful, invasive state to protect them from a world of strangers. Providing some means of easy and reliable ID might make people feel more trusting of their fellow citizens and less trusting of the state.

    Of course, the devil is in the details. Perhaps we can use the internet to create some kind of private peer-to-peer ID system which wouldn’t require the intervention of the state at all.

  • 430-21-4093

    That’s my real live socialist insecurity number. Anyone can have it because I don’t use it. The government does.

    Let go of the rope, ladies and gentlemen, and the opposition will fall flat on its ass.

  • Gordon

    What I have yet to hear is the question “why was this data not encrypted?”
    Having spent most of my adult life in “public service” I have to say that the upper echelons at least are simply too stupid to be held responsible for all the disasters that they have presided upon but have not in any sense understood.

  • Tony Hollick

    The “Two CDs” seems either absurd or a hoax.

    Anyone who has downloaded mp3s or videos will know what capacitiy a CD has.

    Anyone familiar with database formats should have some idea as to the size of each of these alleged “25 million records.”

    An elementary understanding of arithmetic will show that it is quite impossible to store this number of those sort of records on two CDs.

    But people are so busy being frightened or “concerned” that they don’t trouble to do the math.

    Threats to peoples’ children are extraordinarily effective in scaremongering. Ask yourself who stands to benefit most from scaring half the population…



  • Anyone familiar with database formats should have some idea as to the size of each of these alleged “25 million records.”

    An elementary understanding of arithmetic will show that it is quite impossible to store this number of those sort of records on two CDs.


    From the BBC’s Q&A:

    HM Revenue and Customs has lost computer discs containing the entire child benefit records, including the personal details of 25 million people – covering 7.25 million families overall. The two discs contain the names, addresses, dates of birth and bank account details of people who received child benefit. They also include National Insurance numbers.

    From 7.25 million families you can deduce that there must be 3.45 people per family for 25 million people to be covered. Clearly this 25 million figure includes the children since you won’t have more than 2 parents per family!

    But the database stores details of the recipients of the child benefit, i.e. the parents/guardians. Assuming all families are 2 parent families, then that would translate to 14.5 million records, not 25 million (though the records would reference 25 million people).

    Assuming they’re all single parent families, that gives you 7.25 million records.

    Many CDs can store 700MB. Assuming you’re storing 14.5 million records that leads to 48.28 bytes per record. Compression will probably cut the size of the database to 1/3 of the original (possibly less with e.g. bzip2). So now you’ve effectively got 144.83 bytes to play with for the uncompressed records.

    If this is stored as ASCII then consider that the following fictitious record only takes 111 bytes:

    Flat 445, 86 Harrison Street
    A8 9RQ
    Harry, Elizabeth, George

    The field names are first name, last name, address, postcode, town, NI number, children’s names, bank account and sort code in order. They need only appear once in the file.

    E.g. the first line has fields separate by commas, each subsequent line has the values for those fields separate by commas (note that the commas simpy substitute for the line breaks above).

    If they backed up the database in such a format, it is thus seems possible to fit it on one CD on this basis. Of course they actually sent two discs which gives more room to play with, but then some reports have these as being 2 copies of the database.

    Note that comma separated values is a format that is often supported to facilitate transfer of data between different applications.

  • Given the level of technical expertise displayed by most reporters (and government spokesmen) could they be DVD-R discs instead of standard CDs? That’d allow 4.8GB per disc, which is plenty of room even without compression. DVD-Rs are pretty common these days.

  • Midwesterner

    … easy and reliable ID …

    Joking? I hope.

    Shannon, it is the government’s dissolution of the ordinary and traditional means by which people interact with and censure each other and government’s claiming authority over that interface that has lead to the distrust. Not the other way around.

    I was born and started school in Chicago. My introduction to small town life was in my father’s home town (where I live now). A person I had never met before and only encountered while buying candy in a store there when I was 14 y.o. recognized me. She named two generations of my family, told me who I was in the birth order and then apologized for not remembering my name. It shocked me. I told my father about the ‘stranger’. He promptly guessed who she was and named off two or three generations of her family.

    You may say that it works in small towns because everyone knows everyone. That is not the root reason, though. It is only because “everyone knows everyone” that the government is unable to subvert the system with its myriad prohibitions. Some examples:

    •If someone calls you for a reference on a former employee, don’t dare say anything bad about them ever on pain of punitive law suit. (But the small town grapevine defeats that prohibition.)

    •If you hire someone, don’t ask any questions about substance abuse etc or be sued for discrimination. (But the small town grapevine defeats that prohibition.)

    •If a juvenile delinquent vandalizes your property, don’t dare tell his parents to pay up or face negative publicity, or be charged with slander or even extortion. (But the small town grapevine defeats that prohibition.)

    I could go on all evening, but won’t. In a nutshell, the government, like it does in everything else, is trying to steal the social sphere from individuals. If they could figure out how to control whispered ‘between you and me‘s, then small towns would be just as dangerous.

    The solution is not to grant the rest of playing field to the government, but rather to reclaim what has been previously forfeited.

    We have now an extremely large community of complete strangers (Ebay) which has established a relationship network based on trust, not regulation. How long would it be safe to buy things on Ebay if the government took over seller evaluations and satisfaction disclosures? What if we even let the government regulate what you could say about a deal gone bad?

    I used to be where you are now, but Ebay style communities have changed my mind. I now care less about the individual person I am dealing with than the identity that I am dealing with. First, I look at the credibility of the keeper of their identity provenance. Then I look at how much the person has to loose if they cause me to damage that identity. Seriously, I look at the cumulative dollar value of their Ebay sales and the dollars that I am putting at risk. If it would be a really stupid economic choice for them to catch me with a one time/last time rip off, then I trust them.

    I trust the market to provide better identity validation than any government. Always.

    But to be clear, there is only one reason to confine everyone to a single identity. Government control of citizens. Taxes, military drafts, etc. And just like gun laws, all of the flaws inevitable in any government identity scheme will be found and exploited by the criminals to far greater success than any hoped for protections can be gained. The present mandatory single identity scheme is perfectly capable of being used to prosecute voter fraud, but since voter fraud serves the cause of government, no mere identity system will ever stop it. I say, allow people to have as many identities as they like but only vote one of them. We stand as good a chance of catching them without as with big brother’s ‘help’.

    Your last sentence? Follow that thought. It’s a winner.

  • Midwesterner,

    I don’t have any quibble with anything you said. I agree that this is another example of the State seeking more power to solve a problem it created in the first place.

    My main target was the widely shared idea that fostering an general environment of anonymity increases freedom. I think this backfires by creating a society of strangers and undermining spontaneous, voluntary social and economic discourse. Many seem to think that we maximize freedom by escaping the “surveillance” of both the State and our peers. I don’t think such a system possible. People won’t voluntarily cooperate with people that they do not know or cannot find to hold accountable.

    Given political practicalities, I think the best short term solution would be to have the State that people provide ID reaching a certain degree of reliability and then let the private market sort out how to do that.

  • Midwesterner

    Why is it essential for you to receive a government (or any other, for that matter) assurance that the identity you are dealing with is the only one a person has? Not only is such a presumption unfounded in actual life, it is historically unsupported as well. How much better off would those of us who have lived since the time of Isaac Newton be if he had been surveilled by the machinery of the state and his peers, exposing his secret identity as an alchemist? Would Jefferson’s freedom reined in by the surveillance of his peers, exposing his conjugal relations with Sally Hemings have been a benefit to the founding of the US? By what standard of individualism do you find a moral right to expose the private lives of others? You have a right to accept or reject their offers of transaction with you. What short of collectivism says you are entitled to their privacy?!

    Not only is society’s demand that all facets of a person must be disclosed in one single identity dangerous to the liberty of individuals, such a thing would be detrimental to the well being of the entire society! You perhaps feel as many do, that some other part of a person’s life might be of your concern for you to safely interact with them. And yet, if they are highly invested in the identity they are presenting to you, how is making the existence of additional identities criminal going to protect you? At the risk of sounding trite (I assure you I am completely serious) ‘if it is illegal to have multiple identities, then only criminals will have multiple identities.’ And what has been gained? Far more importantly, what has been lost? Isaac Newton and Thomas Jeffersons’ contributions, for starters.

    You may say that those categories that I selected are matters best kept under privacy protection and we could still require a single identity. But to do this is to forbid people from having these secret lives. We live in an information age. We have reached a stage of automation where every action we take from sending (e)mail to filling a gas tank requires an electronic, not face to face, identity authentication process. In this information age, we can either re-engineer these social interactions with an all purpose, single-identity stamp on every social unit, or we can continue to allow people to create and live multiple identities, much as I live the identity ‘Midwesterner’ for a significant part of my free time. Keep in your mind that the only reason we are compelled to have a single financial identity is because Big Bro WILL have its pound of flesh. My credit cards extend their terms based not on anything the government says about me (beyond some of my transactions with it), but like Ebay, on the history of my relationships with people I’ve done covered transactions with.

    Confidence in the system (and by extension, other people) is entirely a matter of trust in the keeper(s) of provenance. Please tell me, what is gained by using the spiked boot of government to stamp a single state-approved identifier on me when I go on line? How is life on line (or in person using credit cards) different than life in person using cash? Perhaps you believe that I should be allowed to retain my Midwesterner identity as long as it is forbidden to engage in any transactions requiring trust. If I am to be allowed my Midwesterner identity, why should it be prohibited from transacting business?

    Your meta-context appears to stipulate that multiple identities must be forbidden. You appear to believe that they are somehow immoral, therefore they must be illegal. Like guns, identities can be abused, therefore government is the only safe repository? Your comment as I read it seems to show an inexplicable faith that if our governments are allowed to complete their identity control schemes, fraud will diminish and everyone will feel safer. They ‘felt’ safer with all guns in government hands at VT, too. Are the comfy feelings worth the very deadly realities? You also seem to be taking the stance that the more the government is involved in any interaction between two parties, the more, not the less, trust is warranted.


    The only societal functions that make it essential to grant government control over personal identities are in the cause of ‘social justice’. ‘From each according to…’ In short, collectivism. Criminalizing multiple identities will not solve voter fraud, it will not protect against hostile aliens, it will not stop criminals from absconding into the shadows with stolen property. In fact it will, with an almost certainty, facilitate all of those very things (and many more that we and the criminals have yet to think of).

    I ask you to please lay out and explain why compulsory single identities are imperative. Whether weighed on a moral or a practical scale, the case for them fails. Why should our identities be bestowed and withdrawn by government? By what moral or practical consequence can we justify granting this most fundamentally controlling power, via democracy, to political majorities?

    “A society of strangers” is caused, not cured, by routing identity authentication through the channels of government.

  • There’s a petition protesting the ContactPoint database which seems to be gathering momentum.


    ContactPoint is going to be an infringement of civil liberties which dwarfs the Child Benefit database.