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Stan # 89: Big brother has lost it - tax lax with personal facts November 2007


Data Protection has become a hot topic in the UK since Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue lost the personal data of 25 million people. As I write, they are still looking. Of course there were procedures in place to make sure this sort of thing doesn’t happen but equally, of course, they were not followed. Any system is only as strong as its weakest link and no computer system can ever be secure because they all involve people. People create data, process them, access them and use them. Whether it’s incompetence, human error or something sinister, personal data will always be vulnerable. The best solution is not to provide the data in the first place - to anyone.

The Government’s defence is that they haven’t been misused so far. Millions of data records were stolen from T K Max and not used for five years. In any case, if the data records have fallen into the hands of criminals, they will most probably link the data with other data and the poor data subject will never know in say, five years time, that the Government are at least partly to blame for their bank accounts being drained. This is not a one off. The pension records of Standard Life pension holders have been lost, 41 laptops stolen containing personal data etc. and this is just from Her Majesty’s Customs and Revenue. All Government Departments leak like sieves.

The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Department in Swansea (Wales) happily sells your personal data for £2.50 to anyone who asks. They have no idea who these people are or why they want the data. They don’t keep records. But if you don’t supply your data for them to sell to criminals, then you are the one who goes to jail. Nice.

Fortunately, the penny seems to be dropping with the public. Hopefully, it’s not too late. At least it makes the ID cards scheme much less likely to happen. It may also put other projects in jeopardy such as the DNA Database, the Children’s Database, the NHS (National Health Service) Database and so on. If the loss of the personal data of 25 million people (names, addresses, dates of birth, national insurance numbers and bank account details) scares people then I think they would be horrified by some spotty oik at the town hall sniggering at you when you go to pay your council tax and whispering to others about the dose of crabs he’s discovered you have which he learned about from his download from the NHS Database.

Incidentally, the person who was responsible for downloading the personal details of 25 million people on to two discs is on gardening leave and we can’t find out who he is because the Revenue and Customs are protecting his identity. They are strong on irony if not security.

Once upon a time we had imperial measurements with ancient names such as rods, poles and perches, furlongs, chains and acres. Most people didn’t need to use them in their everyday lives as miles and yards, pints and pounds were quite sufficient. However, those troublesome French decided to have a Revolution and chop off a few heads. And when they got a bit bored with that, someone thought that a New Start in meaurement would be a jolly good idea.

So, two French astronomers, Delambre and Mechain based the metre on a ten-millionth of a meridian drawn from the North Pole to the Equator. But as no one had ever been to the North Pole, a survey was a bit tricky and it's also a bit nippy up there. Instead, they measured a segment of a meridian and calculated the rest. By sheer luck, there was an ideal line from Dunkirk to Barcelona covering about a tenth of the distance required. In spite of risking being taken for spies as they peered through telescopes from mountain tops, they survived and eventually after seven years rambling around, the length of the meter was confirmed.

The Brits being rightly suspicious of all things from Froggyland, stuck to their imperial measurements. Somehow, a few of these new measurements crept in, probably slipped in with the Bordeaux or Camembert, and so now we have a mish-mash of rain measured in millimetres, but miles per hour for wind. We have temperature in Celsius (used to be Centigrade) and occasionally converted for us into Farenheit. We have petrol in litres but beer in pints. We can buy fruit in either kilos and grams, or pounds and ounces.

There is a philosophical difference in the two approaches. The imperial system was based on measurements that were actually useful in every day life. The inch is approximately the distance from the thumb knuckle to the tip. A foot is, well, a foot. The Metric system is based on the size of the earth which has really very little practical value when you need to buy a pair of trousers. The Brits were quite happy that different units made up the next highest measure. For example, there are twelve inches in a foot and three feet in a yard; sixteen ounces in a pound but fourteen pounds in a stone. In the metric system, there always seems to be ten units of one measure in the next highest measure which is quite boring really. And the last thing the Brits want is to make it easier for Johnny Foreigner which is why English is difficult to learn and has some very odd spellings even if the Americans have tried to change some of them. If we set the bar high, only those who are really keen to embrace our ways will be allowed into the Club.

Those of you who scoffed at the lengthy and some even said tedious explanation of the Lie Group 8 on my last desk top, scoff no more. It appears that the efforts of the team of mathematicians with serious computer power were not doing it just because they were a bit bored on a wet Sunday afternoon. The Lie Group 8 may well hold the key to the Universe. Garrett Lisi, a flamboyant independent mathematician could be the first man to have stared knowingly at the geometry of creation. I was never enamoured with String Theory. Despite years of work, there always seemed to be some aspect of it that didn’t quite fit and it wasn’t elegant. There will always be a few doubters, but most cosmologists, astrophysicists and the like seem to think he is on to something. So, I was right after all. It is useful.


Check in again at my desk soon!

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