Monday, December 03, 2007

Sorry about that, old chums...

The British government has gone and done something absolutely dreadful:

British PM Brown 'profoundly' regrets data security breach

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 21, 2007 | 11:44 AM ET
CBC News

Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologized Wednesday for the "inconvenience and worries" caused by the British government's accidental loss of computer discs containing detailed personal information of 25 million citizens.

During a heated question period in the House of Commons, Brown tried to reassure the country that people's personal details gathered by Britain's tax and customs service were safe following one of the biggest security breaches in the country's history.

Two computer discs that went missing while being sent from one government department to another contained names, addresses, birth dates, national insurance numbers and — in some cases — banking details for nearly half the country's population.

"I profoundly regret and apologize for the inconvenience and worries that have been caused to millions of families that receive child benefits," Brown said. "We have a duty to do everything that we can to protect the public."

Treasury chief Alistair Darling said the discs contained details of the 7.25 million families in Britain claiming the child benefit — a tax-free monthly payment available to everyone with children.

He said the delivery was not being tracked and was missing for three weeks before any alarm was raised.

The discs were password protected but the information on them was not encrypted, officials said.

I always find it interesting that our governments collect ever-increasing amounts of personal information on their citizens--on us. It's all for our own good, for our safety and protection, they tell us. When they demonstrate they aren't even capable of keeping this supposedly critical information safe, what sort of confidence are we supposed to have in their ability to protect us from more concrete and salient threats?

Which brings us to my next book review, Watch Yourself: Why Safer Isn't Always Better by Matt Hern. Hern runs an independent school in East Vancouver and is a scholar of Urban Studies. With Watch Yourself, he discusses our society's increasing obsession with safety and protection before openly wondering if we're actually safer as a result. Not to mention, as the subtitle indicates, if safety is always the preferred option.

Hern notes the obsession with safety in all aspects, often accompanied by the mantra "for the sake of the children". He shares an anecdote about two girls who died during a high school skiing trip. They slipped under a safety fence that had been clearly plastered with warning signs, and fell to their deaths. Despite these precautions, their families still felt that "more could have been done" to prevent the deaths of their daughters.

Fear is among the most potent of marketing tools, and this does not escape Hern's notice. His discussion on SUVs, summarized in this interview states that SUVs were originally a ploy by automobile manufacturers to sell cars as trucks, skirting around certain emission and safety requirements. Owners became convinced that the size of an SUV compared to other passenger vehicles made them safer, when in fact the opposite is true: top-heavy SUVs are more likely to roll over during a quick manouevre, say when trying to avoid a crash.

Hern does not speak from some cloistered, upper-middle class bubble or ivory tower of academe. He runs an alternative school, the Purple Thistle Centre, in Vancouver's infamous East Side. He and his family have been the victims of property crime, and he knows that drug dealers operate in his neighbourhood. This gives his narrative an authenticity other books of this type often lack. For example, he notes that a park in his neighbourhood known for the presence of drug dealers and their clients, was granted a beefed-up police presence. All this did was move the drug dealers to another park several blocks away, whereupon the residents of that neighbourhood began to demand more police. Hern notes that calls to deal with crime and safety typically mean spending more money on policing, and not on the root causes of crime. This is treating the symptoms while letting the disease fester.

Heresy is Hern's agenda: to spread the idea that safety is not always the most desirable goal. And he has a point: how much progress has been achieved in our society because some people were willing to take risks? I would say damn near all of it.