Saturday, December 08, 2007

Data concerns in UK and US

Data losses have continued to create concern this week after further revelations emerged that the theft of laptop computers had compromised the privacy of more UK citizens. The latest in a series of blunders looks set to undermine the competence of the Brown government which has been hit by a number of problems over the last few weeks. Yesterday [Friday] it emerged that a laptop containing the data belonging to 60,000 individuals had been stolen from a car in Northern Ireland [BBC]. The information, which concerns people who had sought help from the Citizens Advice Bureau, contains the names, addresses, dates of birth, bank account details and national insurance numbers. But the CAB has downplayed the latest blunder saying that the data was unlikely to be accessed due to the level of encryption employed on the laptops.

Less than a week ago details emerged about further security failures after it was revealed an ex-contractor at the Work and Pensions Department had held several discs containing personal data for over a year. The person had apparently ‘forgot to return’ the discs, something the Conservative Party said was “disturbing” [BBC]. Another package of Pensions data, sent to various departments, was later found [BBC] but not until an intensive search had been initiated. The printed information was reported ‘missing’ at the end of November [BBC]. And only this week the DVL announced they had ‘inadvertently’ sent personal data of 100 individuals to the wrong addresses [BBC]. The continuing fiasco has prompted both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats to call for a review on the way data is compiled and handled between departments. But it is not just data collected by the government that is of concern. This week the think tank DEMOS said the public were unaware of how many bodies possessed their personal data and that more needs to be done by government to protect them from data theft [BBC]. Citizens’ data is not only stored within government departments, but also within data bases of countless private companies. Store cards and loyalty cards compile extensive records of peoples’ purchase history. The Oyster card, as used to obtain cheaper travel around London’s transport network, logs all journeys made by the individual. It is possible to use the card anonymously, but most users register with their real name and address. Countless online retailers also contain vast records of their clients as do mobile telephone companies and internet service providers. The Demos report, entitled FYI: The New Politics of Personal Information, says people need to be able to trust the government and companies which hold their personal details.

While the loss of data of personal information is causing worry or millions of UK citizens, in the US questions are being asked as to how and why data relating to the interrogation of terror suspects was destroyed. Senator Edward Kennedy said that the apparent deliberate destruction of records amounted to a “cover up”.

The lost data contained information about so called “water-boarding” and other interrogation techniques of terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay. Speaking on CNN earlier today, Daniel Marcus said the 9/11 Commission would have wanted to have seen them and the information may have been relevant to their final conclusions. Meanwhile, George W Bush has said he had no recollection of the existence of such tapes, nor the plan to destroy them [BBC]. The Democrats are angry about the apparent deliberate destruction of ‘evidence of torture’ and are demanding a full investigation [BBC]. This is only the latest in a series of concerns about the way the US treats its detainees. In recent months the subject of rendition has caused controversy with the EU and the UK being embroiled in a war of words. Earlier this year the British security service said their concerns about rendition had been ignored by the US and it had serious implications for the future of intelligence relations [BBC]. But a spokesman for the CIA has told the BBC that "the CIA's counter-terror operations have been lawful, effective, closely reviewed, and of benefit to many people - including Europeans - by disrupting plots and saving lives".

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