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Monday, November 26, 2007
The missing discs

I have followed the saga of the missing discs with increasing incredulity. Here's a paragraph from a short article on the matter
The personal records of 25 million people, including their dates of birth, addresses, bank accounts and national insurance numbers, were lost in the post on October 18, leaving half the British population at risk of large scale fraud. An official at HM Revenue and Customs' offices in Washington, Tyne and Wear, downloaded the entire national database of child benefit claimants on to two CDs, and posted them, unrecorded, to the National Audit Office in London, via the internal post system. They never showed up.
As I understand it, much data processing is outsourced by HM Revenue and Customs and that it would have been too expensive (£5000) to create the subset of data needed. I don't know very much more about this because it hasn't been made public but I do know quite a lot about the technical aspects of this sort of exercise.

Firstly, I cannot conceive how the system would not already have a utility to enable the extraction of subsets of data fields. If it really doesn't, the person(s) responsible for the design should be fired.

Secondly, if they really had to ask an outside software house to do the relevant extraction then, again, the person(s) responsible should be sacked.

Thirdly, to carry out such an extraction, if no utility exists, is such a trivial matter that £5000 is daylight robbery as a charge. A few hundred should have covered it. This appears to be an attempt to milk the client or, if it was a matter of internal accounting, then this is an example of 'fund' transfer that doesn't make – or save - anyone any real money. If there is guilt here, shooting rather than firing is appropriate.

There are many other suspicious characteristics about this whole matter. Take it from me, as a retired systems designer, that this is a mess of gigantic proportions. It is something that none of my departments, nor I personally, would have got wrong. Someone else might have lost the discs but they wouldn't have been able to blame us.

The important part of this fiasco is not that the discs could have been lost but that much more detailed information than was required was provided. I'll bet, though, that blushes will be spared and someone may even be knighted. Incompetence is a noble virtue and should always be rewarded.


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