[Dave Birch] Well, this is interesting. One of my mobile phone operators (I currently have three: my iPhone, my dongle and my son’s phone) has sent me someone else’s bill. I now have someone’s name, address (why it came through our door I have no idea: the address isn’t even in the same town, let alone the same street), mobile number and an itemised bill. I’m sure I could get up to some mischief with this. I don’t want to pick on mobile operators in particular, but I do want to point out that this sort of thing will always happen. In a bizarre way, we’ve come to expect them. It’s even vaguely comforting to read about the usual colossal cock-ups with computers, because it reassures you that all is right with the world…

Zamora said the pump at the By-Pass Deli and Conoco service station at Stevens Drive and the Highway 240 Richland bypass registered only $26 for the fuel. But somehow the transaction was recorded on his debit card as totaling $81,400,836,908… After learning that afternoon by e-mail that his debit card was maxed out (no kidding! ed.) he called customer service… “Somebody from a foreign country who spoke in broken English argued with me for 10 to 15 minutes,” Zamora said. ” ‘Did you get the gas?’ he asked. Like I had to prove that I didn’t pump $81,400,836,908 in gas!”

[From Local News | How many billion dollars for that tank of gas? | Seattle Times Newspaper]

I am literally astonished that a charge for $81 billion could go through the debit card system at all. Wouldn’t you have thought that the settlement system had some limit minding in it that will trigger if a transaction for more than, oh I don’t know, let’s say A BILLION DOLLARS comes through on a debit PAN? Clearly, whoever built the system never imagined that this could happen, so they never put in any logic to watch out for it.

It’s crazy to build systems on the assumption that nothing will go wrong. Amusingly, in a tragic and depressing kind of way, this was reinforced by the news that public employees have already been snooping around in the proto-national identity register to look up friends, family and presumably other “interesting” people even though it’s not even been built yet. Still, not to worry. So far it’s only 30 local authorities that have noticed a problem.

Staff at 30 local authorities have been responsible for “serious security breaches” in the government database that will form the core of the national ID cards programme. Local authority staff have viewed sensitive personal records on the Customer Information System (CIS) run by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), it emerged today. The £72m Customer Information System is an Oracle database being built by Accenture for the Department for Work and Pensions. It will hold a wide variety of data on nearly all UK citizens.

[From ID Cards insider: scheme is “largest , most complex and sensitive undertaking in Government” (Tony Collins’s IT Projects Blog)]

Why on earth would anyone have imagined that there would be any other outcome? And by the way, if I was one of these public employees snooping around for the purposes of amusement, I’d have been using someone else’s username and password, so there’s no real chance of catching them.

But should we be so negative all the time? I’m a glass-half-full kind of guy (my finance director is a “why do we buy such big glasses” kind of guy) so I look for comfort: it’s computer catastrophes, government procurement incompetence and management consulting theories that will save us from the dystopian nightmare of being a total surveillance society.

Surveillance in Nineteen Eighty-Four is relentlessly efficient. Nothing is overlooked, nothing is missed. But surveillance in 2009 is incompetent: officials forget to put film in the cameras; they lose the secret data they have gathered, leaving it on trains or in bars; and they frequently never get around to consulting what they do manage to keep hold of:

[From Only incompetence will save us from Orwell’s surveillance state – Telegraph]

Joking aside, a sure-fire way to stop personal data from being abused is not to store it in the first place. When it comes to the national identity scheme there is no reason at all to have biographic data stored centrally. The entire purpose of the identity register should be uniqueness: the biometric data is there to ensure that ID numbers are unique and nothing else. Then the identity card can take on new purpose: not to store a subset of the biographic data and make it available to everyone, but to control access to personal data. If it could perform as a National Privacy Card rather than as a National Identity Card, revealing appropriate entitlements in the right context but not given away personal data every where and every time it is used, then it could become integral to what we actually need which is a standard, universal authentication scheme. The is what the ID is card not right now.

But alongside this behemoth, we’ll need another national ID-authentication scheme for use in online commerce and public services. The Home Office won’t like it, because it’ll be as much about concealing identity as revealing it

[From Michael Cross on why ID cards should conceal as well as reveal identity | Technology | The Guardian]

But the Home Office should like it, because they are supposed to be on our side, protecting the citizenry. And they should also like because if companies found it more cost-effective to use the National Privacy Card instead of implementing their own schemes then it would also start to generate some revenue for the public purse.

These opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]


  1. An awful lot depends on what the business model is. If the business model involves trading something of value, then the general rule is that someone will try and steal it. So the architectural response is to not use info that is valuable once stolen; just use info that is not valuable outside its domain.
    Sadly, Identity as a tool seems to perform in reverse to what we want in security. Identity gets less good for protecting higher values, not better.

  2. About another person’s bill sent to you. I think it’s the mailman’s fault, the bills got screwed up. So, what did you do then? Did you inform the mobile operator?

  3. Actually I just put the bill in the shredder. Lazy, I know, but I just thought it would be more trouble than it was worth to ring up the operator.

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