Friday, November 23, 2007

The Devil in the Detail

I'd really hoped to have a bit of a pop at the Met's much ridiculed boss, Sir Iain Blair, again. The problem is that the mainstream media appears to have let me down here, in it's coverage of the Metropolitan Police Authority's lukewarm vote of confidence in this arrogant buffoon.

Both Sky and the BBC web coverage of the outcome makes use of the same, or rather two rather similar quotes from Blair. Here we have the truth according to the the BBC:

[Blair] added: "I'm pleased to have the backing of the majority of the police authority. I don't in any way minimise the tragedy that is the death of Jean Charles de Menezes. "

Source: BBC News

OK, reasonable enough, though the nature of the make-up of the MPA doesn't exactly bear up to close scrutiny, as discussed over at The Croydonian, but in this case Blair, for all his faults would have been making a factually accurate statement, even if it did mean his was basking in immensely faint praise.

More worrying was the version over at Sky where the same quote comes out as:
"I am pleased to have the backing of the public. This does not in any way minimise the death of Jean Charles de Menezes. Now I am pleased I can get back to my job."

Source: Sky News

I've no real way of knowing which of the two statements is actually what Blair said, but somehow the Sky version seems to better fit the Blair we know and loathe.

It's bad enough that we have a serial incompetent in charge of the country's most important police force, but the growing signs that we in the capital may be being policed by someone who may well, if Sky version is to believed, completely delusional is even more worrying.

The comments I heard from a couple of PCs on the train recently on some Blair news in Metro would suggest that Blair's support even within the force isn't that solid beyond the managerial layer that immediately surrounds him, let alone amongst the public at large, unless I misheard the officers and they actually said 'anchor'.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Technical Notes #1 - Personal Data

How NuLab Sees You
OK, it's just 24 billion one day and a mere 25 million the next, but you couldn't say that life in the treasury team is exactly dull at the moment.

IT is boring. I earn my living from it, and at times it is a good living, but there is precious little joy in it. I can't get excited by the Wintel v Mac v Linux kind of debates that crop up from time to time on blogs and the like, and to be honest I could probably make a good argument on any given side of that sort of thing that I was dumped on. I write this on an amazingly good value Wintel laptop, I'm amazed by the 'bang for bucks' I can get out of the linuxy hosting platform I do the Facebook stuff on for £50 a year, and Apple stuff, at the very least, looks as if it deserves a place in design museums around the world from the moment it is released. I like it all, I hate it all

I normally steer well clear of the whole subject unless I get 'tired and emotional'. For all of that, I think to most people with experience of large 'customer' (and the term was used in the Commons about those on HMCE's systems even if it sounds a bit perverse - surely HMCE is the customer) databases there must be several points in Darling's explanation of the whole affair that must sound shocking.

My own company holds copies of databases, some with several million records of individuals that are used to help respectable companies develop and maintain their systems. It is more likely than not that anybody reading this article would appear on one of them. Ask me which though and I could not tell you, because, before they were given to me, any piece of information that could possibly identify you was removed. No addresses, everyone lives at 'A Street, B Town, C County, XX1 1XX' and you are called 'M/s Customer XXXXXX', your date of birth is the '01/01/1900' and your National Insurance Number is 'AB123456C'. Even this is only handed over after a debate over the necessity of such a handover and the terms under which I received this copy would be clearly defined and make me contractually obliged to treat even this obfuscated data with the same respect as if I was an employee of the company who legitimately hold the original version.

I could not bypass this. Systems such as those I work on, let alone those overpriced government solutions do not have, as a rule, a menu option that says 'copy all customer data to 2 CDs'. The hypothetical junior civil servant at whose door the fault the latest fiasco can supposedly be laid would have had to have asked for specialist help to produce this data extract. If I went I looking for such an extract with my own customers, the relevant person would have said 'you must be joking'. This is not surprising, I'm only an external consultant, but they would have refused to do it for almost any in-house employee, and, especially in the case of FSA regulated companies, would not even have done it for a director of that company without formal written approval. Even the most junior of database administrators in most companies these days have awareness of the sensitivity of personal data, and have specific authorities granted to refuse to perform certain tasks, even from those whose nominal seniority far exceeds their own.

I encounter this on a daily basis, because it breeds a culture where even much more reasonable requests routinely cause a lot more hassle than they really merit. Fundamentally though, the attitude that gives rise to this kind of irritation also ensures that what happened, apparently so easily, within civil service circles, would be much less likely to occur in large, but not national government scale bodies.

I cannot construct any remotely reasonable scenario in my own mind where the single 'junior civil servant' is anything other than a politically convenient myth, and that there is a bigger problem in terms of the culture surrounding the handling of personal data than even Darling could admit in his humiliating admissions today. While it might superficially sound like something from the pointy tinfoil hat brigade, I cannot really imagine that there would be anything less than half a dozen people responsible directly for this failing. I do not cry 'conspiracy' but rather point to an institutional mindset that would allow these events to happen and, from that cultural failing, the Darling and, perhaps technically in this case his junior ministers, cannot maintain the distance that they currently desperately seek.

I honestly don't know which is the case, but there was little in today's revelations that inspired confidence. Darling waffled on about how he was 'concerned' that all 25 million records were transferred to the auditors when, as he implied, they couldn't possibly audit more than a dozen or so individual cases, which stands in stark contrast to the actual request for anonymized data, which suggests a wholly different kind of higher level statistical analysis.

There is, at least, some more than cold comfort in the whole debacle. I will at least know that the line of 'nothing to hide, nothing to fear' next time I argue about the merits or otherwise of ID cards and the National Identity Register can only come from a certifiable imbecile. The case for proceeding with this scheme is now not so much dead, as hung drawn and quartered, and burnt on the brazier afterwards for good measure.

It would be the act of a fool to trundle on down the path we find ourselves on in this regard and while, it is true, it would appear that we have just such a fool occupying Number 10, the sounds of his fragile coalition on this measure disintegrating are music to my ears.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Great Orifices of State

Great Orifices
Donkeys led by...erm
To have a cabinet minister, even a senior one, find him or herself in a spot of political difficulty is hardly new and if I stretch my mind back far enough I can remember several instances of two simultaneously facing down the pen barrel of a hostile media.

My political memory does not extend back as far as some, but within my own recollection I cannot think of any other time where all four office holders of the four great offices of state have ended so far up into their neck in the brown sticky stuff in such a short space of time.

To see a Chancellor of the Exchequer face Commons humiliation twice in as many days is a pretty extraordinary, but when you consider how close this followed upon the heels of the Home Secretary's similar experience, it has been a remarkable enough period. Then you throw in the public humiliation of the Foreign Secretary by the holder of the most senior post of all, himself subjected to almost daily assaults on his fitness for the job.

To make a defence for any one is just about tenable, but overall the stench of the whole is even stronger than that of its component parts. It might be a smell of decay, not malice, but please God, don't let anyone believe any of self-selected tags such as 'competent' and 'talented' for the current Government ever again.

What may happen to polling data for the other parties in the coming weeks is hard to say, but I wouldn't mind betting that the raw data on the 'Best able to handle...' questions in polls over the next few months will not make happy reading for those sufficiently credulous to have any belief whatsoever left in Team Brown. These perceptions that can be a springboard to major change come general election time and that really can't come quickly enough.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Another Non-Policy?

Ruth Kelly
Sacrificial Victim?
Much of the comment on the last weekend's BBC politics output has rightly focused on the 'Calamitygate' story surrounding the Chris Huhne's bid for the leadership leadership for that eternal political calamity, the Liberal Democrat party.

I would have to admit to enjoying the acrimonious exchanges; real Punch and Judy stuff from the party that thinks we are all stupid enough to believe their baseless assertions that they are above that kind of thing. If anything, it actually fell short of the level of intellectual warfare to count as Punch and Judy politics, being more like a scrap between two five year olds watching the show at a seaside stall, which, after all, could be said to be a metaphor fore the role of the Lib Dems in UK National politics more generally. No more Mr Nice Party then. Good, they never really were; no worse than the other two main parties certainly, but not the morally superior force they manage to hoodwink the gullible into believing them to be.

My eye, or rather ear lest I thought to be a very sick puppy, was more taken by the appearance of the ever strange Ruth Kelly with Andrew Marr earlier in the day and what she had to say, or rather not say about plans for airport style security at major railway stations. It was only a few days since I posted my thoughts, for what they are worth, on this ridiculous plan and from the obvious downgrading by of the scheme by Kelly from a headline initiative to an 'option not to be ruled out' it would appear that the government may finally have thought through the implications of the scheme too.

This type of oft repeated story, especially under the current government, leaves the likes of myself, who has never worked inside the political bubble, scratching my head about how such daft ideas ever come to see the light of the day in the first place.

Ignorant of any real insight of the process I am forced to speculate that it must run something like this, with the only known facts highlighted in bold:

  • Policy announcement - 3 days: Weekend of media criticism of visionless government

  • P - 2 days: PM summons meeting of top secret eye watering initiative team at Number 10, memo sent to all cabinet ministers demanding ideas. Lists of remaining civil liberties that can be dispensed with and things that could be banned circulated.

  • P - 1 day: CabinetPM selects least stupid idea from unknown minister, who is informed that it was the PM's idea.

  • P day: PM delivers weak speech to House of Commons to announce his idea and is derided by opposition MPs who suspect the policy is unmitigated crap.

  • P + 5 minutes: All intelligent life outside the Labour party realise that the policy is indeed crap.

  • P + 1 day: Print media splash lurid headlines about PM's bold initiative, some though already comment on inside pages on the fact that the policy is crap.

  • P + 2 days: Even slower elements of the media realise that the policy is crap, as do more sophisticated Labour MPs without ministerial sinecure.

  • P + 3 days: PM informed that the policy is in fact crap and angrily summons the overworked Labour crap policy disposal team.

  • P + 4 days: Expendable minister dispatched to non-announce the strategic non-advancement of a policy, in place of the Home Secretary whose political health was too weak to allow her to deal with what was fundamentally a Home Office issue.

  • P + 5 days: PM slinks off back into hiding ahead of what he, unlike Parliament, already knows will be a week of disastrous news for his disintegrating government. Next eye catching initiative placed in production, illiberal line failed, so try banning something next time....plastic bags?
...and so the weekly cycle begins again. Well, this kind of knee jerk rubbish has to come from somewhere.