Magazine article The Spectator

Black Tuesday

Magazine article The Spectator

Black Tuesday

Article excerpt

Just as some remote tribesmen fear that cameras and mirrors have the power to steal their souls, so the people of the modern world have come to fear that computers have the power to misuse and misdirect their most private data. Identity theft is a potent nightmare of the digital age, and it is with deep foreboding that we part with personal information even to departments of government that should, in a well-ordered democratic society, be the most secure of all repositories of it.

For HM Revenue & Customs to allow the National Insurance number and bank account details of a single citizen to fall into unknown hands would be a serious failure.

For this monstrous ministry to mislay the details of 25 million citizens, many of them children, by the casual act of downloading the data on to disks and dispatching those disks to another arm of the bureaucracy by unregistered post, is a scandal of such proportions that its magnitude was only beginning to sink in as we went to press.

This is incompetence on an imperial scale.

If we were perturbed last month by the Home Office's huge underestimate of the number of foreign workers entering Britain, we should be enraged by HMRC's culpable negligence for losing half the nation's personal data. The disks contain data relating to child benefit recipients, which in many cases means the least advantaged whom Gordon Brown's government expressly promised to support and protect. Yet these vulnerable families are now exposed to a risk that their bank accounts will be emptied and their identities misused. And who should we blame, where should we direct our anger?

An unnamed 'junior civil servant' committed the fatal act with a brown envelope; his or her ultimate civil-service boss, HMRC chairman Paul Gray, resigned on Tuesday -- a little over a year after the departure of his predecessor, Sir David Varney, who quit after revelations of billion-pound losses through fraud and error in the tax credits system. The accident-prone Chancellor Alastair Darling offered the House of Commons lame promises to do better in future. If the calls for Darling to go too were surprisingly half-hearted, it was perhaps only because few commentators or opposition politicians believe there is anyone more competent on the government front bench who might take over his job.

Likewise in the matter of the Treasury's handling of the Northern Rock crisis, which was suddenly overshadowed by its mishandling of the lost data. …

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