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"The package was not recorded or registered."
November 20, 2007 8:55 AM   Subscribe

Oops: UK tax collection agency loses discs containing personal details of 25 million Britons in the mail.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (50 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite

 
Ah, data loss notification laws. Never before have so many people found out about other people's lost mail.
posted by delmoi at 9:04 AM on November 20, 2007


Hooray for gigantic centralised databases!
posted by hoverboards don't work on water at 9:05 AM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


That need to be moved between departments on CD!
posted by Life at Boulton Wynfevers at 9:08 AM on November 20, 2007


"Contrary to all HMRC standing proceedures two password protected discs containing a full copy of HMRC's entire data in relation to the payment of child benefit was sent to the National Audit Office by HMRC's internal postal system operated by the courier TNT.

"The package was not recorded or registered."


ouch.

What a mess that is and will be. yikes.
posted by nickyskye at 9:14 AM on November 20, 2007


200,000 Notified of Lost Backup Tape by West Virginia Public Employees Insurance.

IBM Offers Reward For Lost Employee Data -- "A contractor lost the tapes containing sensitive information while driving through New York State to a storage facility."

Mustn't forget TJ Maxx ("The Max for the Minimum!").
posted by ericb at 9:17 AM on November 20, 2007


What concerns me most (as a Brit, and one of the people in that database) is that the Goverment were a) sending the disks via a third party courier and b) that it was unregistered.

Patience is running out with the current Government over here, esp. with the Home Secretary/Home Office. This could be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Maybe it is a good time to bomb another Middle Eastern country, to divert attention (Iran, anyone?).
posted by the_very_hungry_caterpillar at 9:23 AM on November 20, 2007


Such a tragedy. If only we had massive data storage capacity and a global network that would allow businesses and governments to store this information in encrypted form.

But that's just a crazy dream.
posted by mullingitover at 9:23 AM on November 20, 2007 [4 favorites]


Update: One down, Alisdair Darling to go...

This is the text of a letter sent by the HM Revenue and Customs chairman to staff announcing his resignation

I am announcing today that I will be standing down as HMRC chairman as a result of a substantial operational failure in the department. The chancellor will be making a statement to parliament later today.

This is not the way I would have planned to organise my departure from HMRC. I had hoped to be around for a while longer, and to have had the continuing privilege of leading HMRC towards the vision we have been developing. But I am extremely proud of what all of you in the organisation have achieved during my time as deputy chairman and chairman.

Our record - for example in achieving sustained increases in tax receipts, in steadily improving the operations of the tax credit system, and in playing our full part in protecting the border - is a good one. At the same time we have made important steps in restructuring the department to face our future challenges, delivering more with reduced resources.
I know we still face some major issues where we need to do better. But I am confident the forthcoming capability review report will highlight some major strengths in HMRC, while giving us helpful steers on how we can improve further.

I am extremely sorry that you may have learned about this first from the media. I will provide further details after the parliamentary statement.


Paul Gray.
posted by the_very_hungry_caterpillar at 9:25 AM on November 20, 2007


Why do people always believe these are accidents? Personal data are valuable. A health care insurance agency that can exclude one person for a genetic disease or propensity could save hundreds of thousands of dollars. It would be worth it to bribe someone to steal it.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 9:26 AM on November 20, 2007


even the resignation letter was LEAKED! You couldn't make it up!
posted by the_very_hungry_caterpillar at 9:26 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


At least Paul Gray has done the decent thing and resigned. That doesn't seem to happen much any more.

You have to wonder how much credibility a massive identity card scheme can have after this.
posted by Phanx at 9:27 AM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


a sufficiently high level of incompetence is indistinguishable from malice.
posted by bruce at 9:29 AM on November 20, 2007 [9 favorites]


Hope it wasn't the mail to Iraq.
posted by DenOfSizer at 9:35 AM on November 20, 2007


Irritating that BBC articles give such prominence to the ill-informed speculation of every idiot with an email account. "Douglas Thomson from Glasgow" is certain that he now knows that this is why money was moved from his account earlier this month, despite the fact that the information lost is, by itself, not sufficient to withdraw people's money with. Unless large numbers of parents suddenly fall victim to identity theft and banks in the near future, there's no real reason to suppose that his case is connected to this HMRC mistake.
posted by matthewr at 9:38 AM on November 20, 2007


personal details? like "hubert enjoys buggering the neighbors dog"?
posted by quonsar at 9:39 AM on November 20, 2007


Death Triumphant: "Taxes Clearly Not So Certain", Reaper Quips.
posted by cortex at 9:41 AM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


Obviously we should press ahead with ID cards and DNA databases. There's no scope whatsoever for those to be a gigantic clusterfsck.
posted by vbfg at 9:49 AM on November 20, 2007 [4 favorites]


Wow, you Brits seem to actually expect government to be competent and responsible. We gave up on those ideas years ago.
posted by octothorpe at 9:57 AM on November 20, 2007


Wow, you Brits seem to actually expect government to be competent and responsible. [Conservatives] gave up on those ideas years ago.

Fixed
posted by DU at 10:02 AM on November 20, 2007


Well, this IS the same government whose crappy tabloids regularly do things like sneak into the Queen's toilet and plant a "fake bomb" (then post a photo of it being done on the front page) to prove that security is lax country-wide. Just saying.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:07 AM on November 20, 2007


I don't know about Conservatives DU, but this US liberal doesn't think much of the competency and responsibility of the current government.
posted by octothorpe at 10:07 AM on November 20, 2007


...but this US liberal doesn't think much of the competency and responsibility of the current government.

No, but you said "government" not "this government". Government is good.
posted by DU at 10:13 AM on November 20, 2007


Having recently been a close observer of a Department of Health intiative which was meant to totally reorganise medical training and recruitment in the UK, and watched it crash and burn at huge personal cost to thousands of junior doctors and others, it really pisses me off that no-one resigned then. At least Paul Grey fell on his sword.

I can honestly say after that experience that I totally expect this to be a simple fuck-up, not malicious at all.

And, it will have an impact on an already unpopular ID card move.
posted by Wilder at 10:16 AM on November 20, 2007 [3 favorites]


"Personal details of 25 million Britons" is the name of my new band.
posted by phaedon at 10:17 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


Incredible.
posted by algreer at 10:17 AM on November 20, 2007


Well, this IS the same government whose crappy tabloids regularly do things like sneak into the Queen's toilet and plant a "fake bomb" (then post a photo of it being done on the front page) to prove that security is lax country-wide. Just saying.

How do the tabloids belong to the government? Your paragraph is currently gibberish.
posted by biffa at 10:21 AM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


You can tell it's a crisis because BBC News have adopted the "this is a massive crisis! we must put the headline on our front page in an extra big font size" approach.
posted by greycap at 10:22 AM on November 20, 2007


Is the UK government so short of cash they can't either a) build a secure network so they don't have to transport discs in the mail or b) pay a little extra for a courier?

While it's fitting that Mr. Gray resigns, these sort of things are seldom the sole responsibility of the guy at the topic. They're systemic, there was nothing out of the ordinary about sending this information via mail and no one even considered the implications. No checks, no balances.

The new head of HMRC is going to have to do more than just carry on.
posted by tommasz at 10:23 AM on November 20, 2007


Biffa: I typed this out quickly while eating, sorry it's confusing. My point was that on every level, the British don't seem to take any level of security threat that seriously, whether it's celebrities' personal information or public transportation, national security or individual information rights. I can't imagine that many American companies would bother to burn files rather than some other type of secure data transfer, but then again, that's me saying this as a non-resident. I just know the papers I read from over there make everything seem like it's a joke. I hope it isn't REALLY that bad.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:25 AM on November 20, 2007


This isn't going to touch the ID card thing. They'll just say "but it has biometric security!", completely ignoring the difference between front-end security and back-end disks walking out the door.
posted by bonaldi at 10:37 AM on November 20, 2007


Is the UK government so short of cash they can't either a) build a secure network so they don't have to transport discs in the mail or b) pay a little extra for a courier?

The information was being transported between two separate agencies, Revenue and Customs and the National Audit Office. A network that spanned the whole of government would be hugely costly and, given the government's abysmal record on large-scale IT projects, would probably never work. And even if such a network existed, it wouldn't necessarily include the NAO, which is not actually a part of government: it's entirely independent and reports direct to Parliament.

Also, they do pay extra for a courier: they have an internal mail system, which is contracted out to TNT.
posted by matthewr at 10:52 AM on November 20, 2007


I can't imagine that many American companies would bother to burn files rather than some other type of secure data transfer, but then again, that's me saying this as a non-resident.

Well, the National Audit Office - which is the body that asked for the data, and which is an independent financial watchdog - is on the Government Secure Intranet. So it could theoretically have been transferred. But I suspect the NAO will have requested it direct from the Child Benefit Office in Newcastle - the operational side of things there will likely not have had access to secure file transfer means and neither, probably, will the official at the NAO who requested. So it will have been sent by CD - nothing wrong with that as long as the protocols required under the Data Protection Act were followed, which in this case they weren't.

What's not being commented on just yet, but may emerge in time, is why the NAO needed it. As well as acting as the Government's accountant (signing off accounts each year), the NAO also does thematic reports into the efficiency and effectiveness of public sector bodies once in a while. The info they've requested implies that this is more than just signing off accounts and that there is some sort of inquiry into the running of the Child Benefit Office. Six months down the line it will be interesting to see whether there is a Public Accounts Committee hearing on child benefit. Bearing in mind that the Permanent Secretary of whichever department it is has to attend this to defend their department, I can't imagine it will be an easy ride for Paul Gray's successor when the PAC eventually get given the NAO's report...
posted by greycap at 10:54 AM on November 20, 2007 [3 favorites]


If I'd waited just two minutes before writing my comment and hence read greycap's, I wouldn't have ended up being so wrong...
posted by matthewr at 11:00 AM on November 20, 2007


I just know the papers I read from over there make everything seem like it's a joke. I hope it isn't REALLY that bad.

It is exactly that fucking brilliant over here. The entire increased security effort after the tube bombings amounted to putting x-ray scanners on the Heathrow Express for about a fortnight, then everyone forgot about it and got on with their lives.

(well, everyone except John Reid and Ian Blair. One down, one to go)
posted by cillit bang at 11:18 AM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


I thought the BBC's coverage of it over the afternoon was enormously overblown, including the WAR BREAKS OUT page design. Seems far more likely to cause unnecessary panic than anything else. They'll probably find the CDs down the back of a cupboard in the post room in a few weeks.

And that's speaking as one of the people on the database.
posted by athenian at 11:51 AM on November 20, 2007


Not quite as awesome as when the Boston Globe accidentally delivered lists of the credit card numbers of all their subscribers along with the daily paper.
posted by koeselitz at 12:07 PM on November 20, 2007 [2 favorites]


This country's civil service is suffering terribly from lack of resources. I pity the numpty who put a DVD in regular post containing bank account numbers of every family in the UK because s/he likely didn't know any better, because of stress and lack of training. Darling's got to go.
posted by randomination at 12:12 PM on November 20, 2007


quonsar: personal details? like "hubert enjoys buggering the neighbors dog"?

Heh heh. Provincial Americans. You obviously aren't aware that such things are a matter of public record in the UK.
posted by koeselitz at 12:13 PM on November 20, 2007


randomination: I pity the numpty who .. likely didn't know any better, because of stress and lack of training

The HMRC and government as a whole have clear Data Protection procedures, and there are no excuses for the junior civil servant who didn't follow them. We have no particular reason to think s/he had any lack of training or suffered stress, and even if that were the case, those would be pathetic excuses for breaking procedures on something as obviously important as this.

Why should Alistair Darling go? He has no personal responsibility whatsoever for this, and it didn't even occur within a department which is directly his. The 'corporate failure' argument, which was used recently against Ian Blair, doesn't apply since there's no reason to think the system as a whole failed, as opposed to one or more individual employees. He's proven to be a highly competent minister in his previous roles, and to fire him for something as entirely unrelated to his competence or integrity as this would set a bad precedent.
posted by matthewr at 12:33 PM on November 20, 2007


Matthewr: I couldn't agree more. People break the rules in a distant office, so the politician responsible should resign? It increasingly seems like trial by media is for girly men: we are instantly into demands for execution by media.

See also.
posted by athenian at 12:45 PM on November 20, 2007



Matthewr: I couldn't agree more. People break the rules in a distant office, so the politician responsible should resign? It increasingly seems like trial by media is for girly men: we are instantly into demands for execution by media.


I would totally agree with you if the management actually had a clue about computer security. We live in an age where pretty much everything we communicate goes through a computer at some stage. We use them on a daily basis, and yet the people in positions of power who are meant to be overseeing the running of our institutions are utterly witless as to how they operate, how to use them safely or even the basic physical security procedures that would prevent this sort of accident.

The UK government has a culture of illiteracy when it comes to data and information processing. Junior members of staff should not even have access to this data. The list of management failures here is as long as the list of failures by employees.
posted by public at 3:04 PM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm confused, public. What does all this have to do with computer security? The problem came in sending a CD containing information that should not have been released without registering it and using recorded delivery. There doesn't seem to be anything particularly computer-specific about this: it could have happened in exactly the same way in a paper-only, computer-free world. The only real policy implications here are to reinforce the message about data protection and recording important mail and, preferably, make sure you don't hire idiots in the first place. I'm sure you're right about IT-illiteracy, but I'm not sure how relevant it is.

Junior members of staff should not even have access to this data.

The trouble is, the British civil service has always given comparatively large amounts of power to relatively junior employees. That's not going to change any time soon. Also, I could be wrong, but it's possible they are only 'junior' in the sense that they are not in the Senior Civil Service, who are pretty far up the food chain in terms of power and pay. Hypothetically, if this were the fault of a middle-manager, it would be in the interests of the government to describe them as 'junior' in order to give the impression that this was caused by a low-ranking peon, rather than someone with any power (civil servants cannot be named, so there's no question of the person responsible appearing in the papers).
posted by matthewr at 3:35 PM on November 20, 2007


so there's no question of the person responsible appearing in the papers
I wouldn't bank on that.
posted by bonaldi at 3:43 PM on November 20, 2007


Password protected... well I'm just guessing but I'd bet it won't be a random string of alphanumerics, upper and lower case... more like PASSWORD, 123456, QWERTY, HMGUV or DARLINGISATOSSER
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 4:06 PM on November 20, 2007


If you ever find yourself in need of a strong argument against democracy, in the vein of Winston Churchill's famous "five-minute conversation" dictum, take a look at the BBC's 'Have Your Say' forums on this topic.
posted by matthewr at 4:51 PM on November 20, 2007


which is contracted out to TNT.

Ah so it's TNT. But is it dynamite?
posted by bap98189 at 1:13 AM on November 21, 2007


The 'corporate failure' argument, which was used recently against Ian Blair

The argument against Ian Blair is that he's a terrifying narcissistic psychopathic nincompoop who shouldn't be in charge of anything. That this only came to light in his reaction to the various disasters he's presided over is neither here nor there.

Alistair Darling, on the other hand, seems reasonably sane.
posted by cillit bang at 1:54 AM on November 21, 2007


I don't know about this specific department, but I do know that the Inland Revenue require some staff to use passphrases instead of passwords. Hopefully this applies here.

Personally, I'm amazed that they're sending these by CD. If only there were some kind of global information network which could be used to send data electronically from one place to another. I guess that such a marvellous invention is simply another of my science fiction dreams.
(joke stolen from slashdot. I cannot take credit)
posted by seanyboy at 3:36 AM on November 21, 2007


Also, they do pay extra for a courier: they have an internal mail system, which is contracted out to TNT.

But the Government even has its own secure despatch service.
posted by ninebelow at 4:34 AM on November 21, 2007


I could be wrong, but it's possible they are only 'junior' in the sense that they are not in the Senior Civil Service, who are pretty far up the food chain in terms of power and pay. Hypothetically, if this were the fault of a middle-manager, it would be in the interests of the government to describe them as 'junior' in order to give the impression that this was caused by a low-ranking peon, rather than someone with any power

Gratifyingly, the BBC's political editor confirmed that this is indeed the case:
Note: the term "junior official" has a precise Whitehall definition .. confusingly, someone termed a "senior business manager" may still be a "junior official" in Whitehall speak. Now I'm told that the only cross-Whitehall definition of junior is someone not in the "senior civil service" i.e. the top brass - permanent secretaries, directors general, who are Grade 5 and above.
posted by matthewr at 10:11 AM on November 22, 2007


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