At least the UK Government has owned up fairly quickly to the latest data calamity – the loss of 25 million child benefit records from the HM Revenue and Customs department.
The data went missing on as-yet unspecified ‘disks’ – most likely CDs - during their transport in breach of official guidelines, which explains why an official’s head has rolled down from the chopping board. The resignation of the department’s chairman, Paul Gray, is the least the public should expect for such an extraordinary event.
The data isn’t small fry, running to people’s names and addresses, bank details, and child benefit accounts. Almost every single parent in the country could be affected because the benefit is universal, paid to anyone with progeny as a symbolic sop in return for the UK’s medium-to-high personal taxes.
Nobody predicted this outcome for a couple of CD discs, with an approximate value around 17 pence. But technology enables and technology humbles in equal measures sometimes.
“I am extremely sorry that you may have learned about this first from the media. I will provide further details after the parliamentary statement,” said poor Gray in his resignation letter, no doubt extracted in haste by ministers eager to keep their own failures (mostly of understanding) out of the public glare.
The good news is that we know at all, ministers having sat on the leak for a mere 10 days. Everyone calls for data disclosure laws, still missing from the UK statute book, but it’s interesting to note that increasingly this sort of data breach is being reported anyway. Certainly, this is the first time a high-profile public figure has lost their job over such an incident.
Lessons will no doubt be learned in the way of all public events such as these, but the deeper lesson is not the obvious one, that government departments shouldn’t throw CDs full of sensitive data around town like Frisbees. The real truth is that data cannot be protected from prying eyes. It will leak out one way or another, encryption or no encryption. What is needed are new and as yet un-invented antidotes for dealing with inevitable leaks, or quickly notifying the right people in time.
Quantum-entangled CDs anyone?