Will Companies' House liability for damages help trigger better approach to identity governance?

We have much debate about information security and data protection but far more harm is caused because accurate information is not available when and where it is needed. The Cabinet Office “liability avoidance” approach to identity and authorisation policy has long been driven by the need to address long standing quality problems, the proportion of department or agency records containing serious errors with regard to individuals or businesses often in the range 10 – 25%. Now, at long last, the reason has been made public.

Public debate regarding legal, incluidng corporate, identities has been complicated by a long-running (four years to the recent High Court judgement) case in which Companies House was being sued for having destroyed a healthy, century old family business, by promulgating a simple data error. The game is not yet over. There may yet be an appeal. The issue of “Crown Immunity”, inherent in the various EU Roman-Law based, Directives and Regulations concerning identity and data protection and sharing, will hopefully come into play – in the year of the 850th Anniversary of Magna Carta. The “immunity” of the “Data Barons” should also, however, come into play if we wish to avoid a “Peasants’ Revolt” as our current intellectual property regime loses public support and becomes unenforcable..  

Hence the importance of the issues raised in my last blog when I suggested a need to bring the UK information governance regime (both public and private) under proper judicial oversight. That means accuracy and availability, not “just” surveillance and security. Most of the debate over the governance of medical records (for example) is to do with privacy but we should not forget far more practical harm is caused by coding errors that can destroy lives and careers, whether or not the patient survives the failure to provide accurate information to clinicians when and where it is need.   

The debate over “big” and “open” data, including liability for mis-use and error is, hopefully, about to take a new and more realistic turn, away from mythology, technology and the business models of those refining our digital footprints and associated misinformation and cybercrud into “the new oil”.

In the 850th year of Magna Carta we need to address the duties that the Data Barons, as well as the State, owe to the rest of us with regard to their use of our personal data, especially when they broadcast errors that can destroy lives and businesses, as Companies House did when they confused Taylor and Son Ltd with Taylor and Sons Ltd when supplying insolvency data to the credit reference agencies. In looking at the significance of this case we need to remember that the services of the credit refernce companies are not only used to underpin and approve on-line business to business and business to consumer transactions. They are also used to help “authenticate” the on-line identities used whenever more than about $100 dollars is at risk. Given that the use of such services is central to the approach behind the Government Verify programme, the issues also go to the heart of the Modernising Government Agenda – with all the implications for social inclusion (and the 20 – 30% of the population without a credible digital footprint or credit profile).  

On the 9th February Computer Weekly is partnering the BCS and Tech UK in a “Big Digital Debate” . Given the growing public distrust of all things digital, I do hope that some-one, perhaps the chairman (over to you Bryan) will ask the speakers for their views on whether the Data Barons (from Amazon through Google to Yahoo and Zoopla) should take a greater legal responsibility to us all, if they wish to be able to enforce their related digital intellectual property rights. Similarly, should not “The Crown” (alias Whitehall) take explicit responsibility for the use of our information by its agencies and contractors if it expects us to deal with it on-line?

I deliberately pick content-related IPR enforcement as being the only part of a 21st Century Peasants Revolt that would scare the Data Barons of Today. All other sanctions are broken or worthless in an inter-connected world.  “The Crown” is, of course, more vulnerable to public opinion – at least for the next hundred days.          

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