Saturday, 24 November 2007

ID cards – and why the government is so wrong

I am no computer expert, so why I am so completely sure that the government's faith in technology is wholly misplaced?

First, because its track record is utterly dismal. Put it another way, the bigger the IT project, the more certain the eventual screw-up – and the more serious the consequences.

Second, because I have always instinctively felt that, at heart, no government has ever had the foggiest idea of what IT systems are, instead being seduced by the virility and modernity of the technology.

And now, courtesy of CiF, I think a seriously coherent explanation has been produced. I make no apologies for quoting it verbatim. It is a comment on an article by Andrew Brown from a man called Robert Stanfield and should be required reading for all members of the government. In fact, they should learn it by heart.

You can read the original here. Scroll down the page to find Stanfield's contribution.

And now for Mr Stanfield:

The problem is not so much technology as the misplaced faith in it by people who have little or no understanding or experience of how data entry and storage works. Time and again IT projects are commissioned or given the nod by people who can barely turn on a computer and probably have underlings to do that.

It makes them ripe for exploitation by unscrupulous IT consultants. It also makes them ill-equipped to work effectively even with scrupulous ones, as it almost always entails altering specifications as the thing goes along, nixing capabilities that will prove useful and being mesmerised by useless bauble features. I've experienced this myself in database development.

But above and beyond that it is about time the likes of Blunkett, Brown, Darling etc, stopped using words like 'biometric' as if they were talismans and actually listened to some fo the many voices of warning raised by people who know rather more than them about how IT, biometrics etc actually work, what they do best and how they can actually fail or be bypassed. It is our privacy and security they are blithely playing around with.

The managerial class as a whole is fundamentally not qualified to talk sanely or informedly about IT, databases etc. I know a good deal more than average about it and it's not because of ludditism or hostility to computers that I have great reservations about the increasing reliance of government on IT systems. In theory it's all wonderful and logical and failsafe. In practice it's not.

The first truth an IT person learns about computers is that the answer in about 50% of problems is to switch the machine off and on again. That's not a theoretical truth, nor a logical one. In fact it could be said to be a logical nonsense. But it's a practical fact. Brown et al need to learn the difference between what should theoretically be and what actually is. They are often different. That may sound arrogant, but then I'm not the one advocating more IT systems and biometrics in order to protect people's private data. It's the people who manifestly understand less who are doing just that.

1 comment:

The Gorse Fox said...

The Gorse Fox trusts that "turning the computer off and on again" is done with caution! Such advice can cause corruption to filesystems that delay the restart of the system as the corrupt sectors need to be recovered or discarded... also it can be a major delay in restarting a database as (at least for moderne databases) journals/log files have to be examined to ensure the integrity of the data that is restarted.

GF is also concerned at the spurious comment regarding IT Consultants - he would assert that they are rarely the cause of the problem, merely the vector that brings the problem to the fore. Government indecision, budgets that come and go at a whim, and the belief that every single user should have a say in the solution are at the heart of the matter.