God Given v. State Dictated Information Governance

In ancient Sumeria, birthplace of writing and coinage, all property belonged to God and commercial transactions were determined by laws which applied to rulers as well as their subjects, to whom they were accountable. Ancient Egypt was different, as is modern Britain.


In ancient Egypt everything and everyone belonged to the living God: the Pharoah. The post Armstrong Civil Service has similarly reinvented the previously dormant and dying concepts of Crown Immunity and the Royal Prerogative and we have a proliferation of statutory, self- and co- regulators whose accountability is as transparent as that of a medieval guild.

In my blog on “Death by Data Protection” I traced the routines used by the private sector for secure on-line transactions back to the Knights Templar. Over Christmas a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Scrivenors, which quietly controls the heart of the Occidental “trust” market, pointed out that the core routines go back 5,000 years, not 1,000.

Those routines have developed and grown in spite of the state, not because of it: with the periodic destruction of those over-mighty rulers (from the Kings of Accadia to the Dukes of Burgundy) who licensed their servants to butcher and pillage the wealth creators and traders on whom their wealth depended.

Over the past twenty years those routines have transitioned to the digital world, as have those of the equally venerable “trust” routines of India and Asia – despite attempts by governments around the world, and most especially in the west, to “regulate” the process. Indeed it could be said that all that the Western Governments have achieved is to drive business to those markets where it is regulated by the laws more akin to those given by God to our ancestors (including Protestant Common Law and Islamic Sharia) than those dictated by Caesar, Napoleon or the bureaucrat of the day.

What triggered this rant?

I have just been told of yet another attempt by Brussels to interfere in the processes of global trust management in order to supposedly preserve privacy in the face of attempts by US and UK government agencies to electronically monitor anything that moves. In fact I have more faith in the governance processes of some of those agencies that most of their civilian counterparts.

We must move away from the current dialogues of the blind and deaf, which benefit only terrorists, criminals, compliance officers and technology salesmen. We need to bring together those who really do want to preserve a wealth creating, democratically accountable and socially inclusive Information Society and reset the agenda – so as to better identify and reward those who have earned our trust and punish those who have abused it.

Last week the Ethical and Spiritual panel of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists held its 50th meeting. I have probably attended about half. I believe we have a moral as well as a professional duty to our skills to harness five thousand years of experience in fighting oppression, incompetence, corruption and crime, at the same time as tackling the “terrorist/fundamentalist” threats of the day: tribal, nationalist, religious, political or personality cult.

We should also remember that over the past decade the financial services players based in the City of London have lost more dead and injured civilians to terrorist activity than the rest of the UK. Like the Corporate Head of Security, who thought and planned ahead for that which his Government said was unthinkable, and then got all his company’s staff out on 9/11 before dying while doing a last check, we should have little or no patience with those who are still playing tick box and blame avoidance games.

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What triggered this rant?

Quite fancy a bit of a rant myself, actually.

As you say, the principles of information assurance go back several millennia. They are built into the ethos of most institutions. The military, you mentioned, in your Death by data protection post. The medical profession. The Church. The universities. Banks, obviously. The diplomatic service. And the civil service, surely.

And yet, after the HMRC/child benefit debacle, there were ministers touring TV and radio studios saying "the lessons have been learnt". That's very odd. Lessons? After 5,000 years?

What is odd about it? The timescales. On the one hand, we have 5,000 years experience. On the other hand, we have ministers talking as though they were born yesterday.

And, if they expect us to be satisfied with their "the lessons have been learnt" line, they must think we were born yesterday, too.

They, ministers, are credulous. So it is hard to respect them. And they must think we are credulous, too -- they don't respect us, their audience, their parishioners. Not a good recipe for government.

They are, indeed, credulous. They don't seem to realise that the National Identity Scheme (NIS) is dead. After HMRC condemning 25 million people to the lifetime threat of identity theft until and unless they change their bank account, how could anyone with any sense of self-preservation, anyone with a modicum of prudence, think it sensible to build a National Identity Register (NIR)? They couldn't.

The fact that the government are trying to hold the line implies therefore that they lack even a modicum of prudence. They were born yesterday. They are credulous.

They believe the marketing pitch of the biometrics salesmen. They are credulous.

They may not, even now, have considered the implications of the NIS properly. They may, instead, simply be taking their orders from the European Commission (EC). At least that would explain the inability of any minister or ex-minister to explain how the NIS will work, how it will achieve its objectives -- it's not their scheme, it's the EC's.

The NIS is meant to ensure that only those entitled to them can enjoy certain benefits, like the legal right to work in the UK. The biometrics the NIS depends on fail 20% of the time. 20% of people will find it hard to prove their right to work. People. Not criminals. Not terrorists. Just, people. At which point, the scheme will have to be abandoned. Our ministers had better hurry up and consider the implications. Otherwise, all the money spent on it will have been wasted. Credulity is expensive.

I have two sources of hope that the NIS will soon be cancelled.

Firstly, the magnificent inactivity of the Identity and Passport Service (IPS). David Blunkett issued his consultation document on entitlement cards in July 2002. Suppose that work started on that document in January 2002. Then IPS and its predecessors have had six years to think about the matter. They have had the benefit of £50 million poundsworth of consultancy. And yet they still haven't produced an invitation to tender for the biometrics goods and services that will be required for the NIS.

It's not that hard to write an ITT. Especially if you are in daily contact with the suppliers. The fact that they haven't produced one suggests to me that they don't want to and they won't.

And second, the self-interest of the prospective suppliers. I have drawn up a risk assessment for them. It would be a brave supplier who read that and went on to submit a tender. Foolhardy, one might say, temerarious, even. Not at all the sort of supplier the prudent IPS should deal with.

Suppose that, actually, behind the scenes, they have worked out that the NIS is a dead duck. As a man called Virgo once pointed out to me, that would still leave the problem how to get themselves off the hook.

I was listening. Herewith my proposals, how to overcome credulity. I just hope that, possibly with your help, it won't take 5,000 years.

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Philip Virgo Comment: I'd welcome any responses to David Moss's idea of using the mobile phone as an ID token. These are now being used for international money transmission by several of the traditional muslim and hindu trust networks and western banks operators are looking to respond, if ony to avoid losing "market share". But the idea sends a shiver down my personal spine.

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