Poynting out hard lessons…

The goat-scaping job has been finished and (says Wendy M Grossman in this week’s NewsWireless.Net “net.wars” column, mistakes were made.
This week we got the detail on what went wrong at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs that led to the loss of those two CDs full of the personal details of 25 million British households, last year,” she summarises. And she lists most of the things that went wrong.

“The real problem, though, isn’t any single one of these things. If junior staff had consulted senior staff, it might not have mattered that they didn’t know what the policies were. If HMRC used proper information security and secure methods for data storage (that is, encryption rather than simple password protection), they wouldn’t have had access to send the discs. If they’d understood TNT’s services correctly, the discs wouldn’t have gotten lost – or at least been traceable if they had.

The real problem was the interlocking effect of all these factors. That, as Nassim Nicholas Taleb might say, was the black swan.

For those who haven’t read Taleb’s The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable the black swan stands for the event that is completely unpredictable – because, like black swans until one was spotted in Australia, no such thing has ever been seen – until it happens, writes Wendy Grossman.
And she adds:

It’s good to read that some good is coming out of the HMRC data loss: all departments are, according to the O’Donnell report, reviewing their data practices and beginning the process of cultural change. That can only be a good thing.

But the underlying problem is outside the scope of these reports, and it’s this government’s fondness for creating giant databases: the National Identity Register, ContactPoint, the DNA database, and so on. If the government really accepted the principle that it is impossible to guarantee complete data security, what would they do? Logically, they ought to start by cancelling the data behemoths on the understanding that it’s a bad idea to base public policy on the idea that you can will a black swan into existence.

Full article in NewsWireless.Net today

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