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Missing UK Child Benefits Data - An Abuse Of Trust

Mal Fletcher
Posted 21 November 2007
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Trust: how would we survive without it?

Trust is central to every level of human relationships -- from the most intimate personal relationships, to the more tenuous links between governments and their citizens.

As the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary, the story of their long marriage provided a powerful testimony to the benefits of trust. They must have worked hard to build the trusting commitment they now enjoy, and their example feels inspirational in a world of so much divorce.

Sadly, on the very day of their anniversary, people across Britain began to hear news of a terrible example of the abuse of trust and what it can do to the fabric not just of relationships but of society.

The British government announced yesterday that personal records of 25 million people have been exposed to the risk of ID fraud, through the mishandling of sensitive data CDs.

The first casualty in this debacle is not financial, but moral; the trust of a nation in its government has been badly damaged.

Trust is not like a photograph, an image that appears in an instant of time. It is like a painting, the full shape of which develops over time as layer upon layer of colour is applied.

Relationships, at any level, always start with a blank canvas. Each party knows next to nothing about the other. Over time, as each proves their accountability and competence, trust is built up in layers.

Trust is perhaps the hardest thing to build into a relationship, any relationship, and probably the easiest to destroy, as this case illustrates all too well.

The government is being grilled about its competence both in Westminster and in the media.

People are demanding to know how government workers can treat private information so flippantly; especially when that government is planning to add to the amount of personal information on file by introducing personal ID cards for every citizen.

Apparently, the saga began when the National Audit Office (NAO) routinely requested from HM Revenue and Customs certain information for their national audit on child benefits.

Someone within Revenue and Customs burnt the information on two data CDs and sent them through the mail -- unregistered, so there is no ability to track them.

Not only does it seem incredible that the personal information of 7 million families could be sent through the mail with no more security than a common Christmas card, it turns out that the information on the CDs went beyond what was requested.

Their request was for names, national insurance numbers and child benefit numbers. Sending that through the mail would have been bad enough! But the missing CDs also feature some details on bank and building society account numbers.

When the NAO failed to receive the CDs, two more were made and sent, this time more securely. The second batch arrived (though of course, sending them this way means they can still be tampered with en route). The first batch are still missing.

The government says there is no evidence of criminal activity as yet, but that doesnít mean that fraudsters arenít involved.

Having gained this kind of information, there are many ways criminals might use it. Because some people use their children's names as online banking passwords, criminals may easily access bank accounts.

Also, fraudsters may ring up a bank's staff pretending to have misplaced their password. Because they can give other relevant personal information, like a national insurance number, new passwords may be issued to them. As one official put it, "having a national insurance number is as good as having a passport."

At the very least, fraudsters could order new credit cards in someone else's name and then rack up huge credit bills on each one. Even before this situation, the Home Office estimated the cost of identity fraud in the UK at £1.7 billion.

Competence, an essential ingredient of trust, has been massively compromised. The government's accountability is also under question.

The Chancellor and Prime Minister were alerted about the situation on November 10. Yet they did not inform the police until five days later and the banking industry, whose cooperation in spotting potential fraud is vital, was informed only last Friday.

In the short term, it is the uncertainty as to the whereabouts of this data that causes most concern for people. There is the nagging sense that the information could be in the hands of someone who plans not to use it for weeks or months to come. Suddenly, people may find themselves faced with the costs of a bank loan they didn't know they had, or credit bills they knew nothing about.

Of course, there are procedures for dealing with identity fraud and banks are normally well insured. However, as someone who recently experienced one form of ID fraud, I can tell you that banks are slow to follow-up unless the customer is prepared to chase them.

It's an extremely unsettling and frustrating experience, to say the least. And, once a claim has been made, one canít be sure of one's true financial status until the bank has investigated.

Yes, it was inspirational to see the pictures of the Queen and the Prince as they celebrated their many years of commitment. Like any long-married couple, they have worked hard to achieve a high level of trust.

It was sad that, on the same day, people across Britain found that their government has squandered precious trust. It will take a great deal of hard work to win it back.

What’s your view?

Are governments generally trustworthy when it comes to handling sensitive personal data?



Keywords: child benefits data | missing data | ID fraud | HM Revenue & Customs | National Audit Office | parliament | Mal Fletcher

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