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Friday, 23 November 2007

23 November 2007

I’ve had an idea: why don’t we put Steve McLaren in charge of the government’s IT network? I mean, how much worse could he do?

What is it, do you think, about governments and computers? It’s 15 years now since the London Ambulance Service tried to introduce a new computer system, with all-but-disastrous results. Before that, there was the Passport Office computer fiasco which resulted in a backlog of half a million passport applications; air traffic control operations nearly went into meltdown when they tried to introduce a new computer system; and the disaster that was the Child Support Agency was largely the result of another major computer fiasco. I could go on, but it’d be bad for my blood pressure.

Perhaps you find it difficult to accept the story that the loss of the child benefit data was all the fault of some lowly tax clerk who stuffed a couple of computer discs into an envelope and shoved them in the internal mail, simply because he couldn’t be bothered to follow the rules. Me? Well, I may not know much about how computer systems are designed (oh, all right, I know absolutely nothing about how computer systems are designed), but I do know that it shouldn’t be too difficult to build a system that prevents unauthorised users from downloading the personal details of 25 million people and copying them onto an unencrypted disc.

Take the BBC’s computer system (yes, please do, just take it …). Suppose I want to change the order of the items in a programme I’m working on. I can’t, because the system tells me I’m not “authorised”. I dread to think what would happen if I tried to download anything onto a disc.

Here, in my comfy leather arm-chair in the snooze-room of the Grumpy Old Men’s Club, I contemplate this digital world and snarl. Except, of course, I don’t. Not really. What I really do is spend virtually every waking hour in front of a computer screen, whether at home or at work (yes, I know, get a life, Lustig …). I read, write, fill in forms, book holidays, pay bills, all on screen. I can’t remember how I managed before.

But sometimes, I hate it. I hate it when computers write me letters that make no sense. I hate it when computers answer my phone calls and then put me on hold for half an hour. And most of all, I hate it when somehow we’re meant to believe that this is all unavoidable and we’ll just have to accept it.

As for protecting my digital identity, I fear that battle is already lost. I’m the user of an Oyster travel card on the London transport network, so I know that they have a record of every journey I make. As the user of a mobile phone and a credit card, I know that my phone provider and bank can retrace my steps almost yard by yard. As can anyone with access to the images captured by all those CCTV cameras on top of every second lamp-post. I know that Amazon has a record of every book that I buy, and Google knows about every website that I visit. I don’t like it, but I accept it because the advantages, so far at least, outweigh the disadvantages.

And as for Mr Darling, well, after years of carefully cultivating a reputation as Mr Obscure, he has now gained a reputation as Mr Bad Luck. And for a senior politician, that really is bad luck. Ask John Major …

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