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Monday, January 21, 2008

More data is lost

In the Welsh Liberal Democrat debate on ID cards last week the Labour Social Justice Minister made a curious statement in responding to our points on the issue. He said:

When I saw the topic of this debate, I wondered whether we were going to see something new or different from the Liberal Democrats. Had anything happened since the last time we discussed this matter in 2005 to suggest either that the overall political situation, or that of the Welsh Assembly Government had changed? So far in the contributions, I do not think that the case has been made to justify any requirement to hold this debate because of a change in circumstances. Clearly, the debate covered the many contentious issues surrounding the introduction of ID cards: their effect on terrorism, crime, fraud and identity theft and how effective a mechanism they would be to tackle those particular ills in society, as well as addressing the cost-effectiveness and proportionality of the proposals. However, we have been through all this before, and while it is legitimate to revisit these matters, I did not see a new or novel element being brought to the debate.

As I pointed out at the time what has changed is a substantial loss of public confidence in the project following a period of a few months in which more sensitive government data has gone missing than has ever been admitted to previously. Two items in the newspapers today and yesterday add to that narrative.

Firstly, there is the report in yesterday's Wales on Sunday reporting that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has asked a courier firm to explain how hundreds of documents bearing people’s personal details were found by a motorist scattered in the road. The papers, which were found on Thursday morning on a roundabout and road near Exeter Airport, included incapacity benefit files, others relating to pensions and Jobseeker’s Allowance, bank statements, passport documents and copies of passports.

The second incident is the theft of a Ministry of Defence laptop computer holding the personal details of 600,000 Royal Navy, Royal Marine and RAF recruits, and of other people wanting to join the services. The Guardian tells us that there is concern about the potential threat to the individuals, including Muslims who may have inquired about careers in the military. This has led the MoD to contact the Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, Jtac.

The MoD has also contacted the banks of 3,500 individuals whose accounts were listed on the missing database and could now be open to fraud. Data on the computer also included passport details, national insurance numbers, drivers' licence details, family details, doctors' addresses and NHS numbers, the MoD said. The information commissioner, Richard Thomas, has said that he is concerned about the sensitivity of some of the data on the computer, particularly as it related to military personnel.

Can any Government really be entrusted with a National database of the sort envisaged to back up this ID card project? The Government's track record on keeping data safe is bad enough but when one considers the ability of Government departments to ensure that the information they hold on individuals is accurate and up-to-date as well, then the answer to that question has to be a resounding 'no'.


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