Friday, August 22, 2008

Logic (and Memory Sticks) go out the window

Here's my article on the lost government data fiasco from The First Post.

“This is a massive failure of duty. It is not the first time that the government has been shown to be completely incapable of protecting the integrity of highly sensitive data," was Shadow Home Secretary Dominic Grieve's response to the news that a computer memory stick containing highly confidential data of 84,000 prisoners in England and Wales has gone missing.

But in his attack Grieve fails to mention one very important point.

It wasn't the government which lost the data, but a private company, PA Consulting, a sub-contractor to the Home Office.

It's not the first time that a private contractor has lost confidential government data. Back in December it was revealed that the details of 3m candidates for the driving theory test had gone missing in the US, after Pearson Driving Assessments, a contractor to the Driving Standards Agency, had lost a hard drive from what they described as a 'secure facility' in Iowa.

The question we ought to be asking is: why are core government tasks - including the handling of highly sensitive data - being outsourced to private contractors, very often contractors based in other countries?

The process of hiving off government tasks began with the then Conservative government’s 1991 White Paper 'Competing for Quality', which called for the activities of government departments and agencies to be 'opened up' for tender. By 1995, more than £2bn of activities had been 'market-tested'. Supporters of sub-contracting claimed that it would increase efficiency. But after this latest fiasco is there anyone still willing to argue that the increased involvement of the private sector in the business of government has led to greater efficiency?

It is logical to assume that the more outside agencies that handle government data, the greater the likelihood of it getting lost. But logic, it seems, goes out of the window where Britain's political elite and their blind attachment to neo-liberal dogma is concerned.


David Lindsay said...

Isn't privatisation great?

And wouldn't ID cards work like a dream?

Neil Clark said...

Exactly, David. And guess which private company was awarded the ID cards contract? Yup, you've guessed it, PA Consulting. You couldn't make it up, could you?

Anonymous said...

In the year 2008, government people (or people working for a private company hired by the government, which is a strange concept for me) are moving sensitive data using $10 flash memory sticks?! FFS, industrial strength encryption can be done with blazing speeds using even long obsolete desktop PC processors, not to mention that having an almost bulletproof smartcard/storage combo device mass manufactured would cost next to nothing, compared with potential damages stemming from incidents like this one...

Anonymous said...

Oh, but of course, as one of your regular commenters is no doubt itching to point out, this sort of thing only happens to government data, never private sector data... Oh, hold on...