Thought for the day:The secret life of IT

Following a report in the Sunday Times on British secrets on the Web, Simon Moores wonders just how many "secret" IT projects are...

Following a report in the Sunday Times on British secrets on the Web, Simon Moores wonders just how many "secret" IT projects are failing to deliver and wasting taxpayers' cash.

At a guess, it took under 90 seconds to locate the minutes of the meeting of the Whitehall committee of 16 November 1999. While the government is keen that the address of the US-based Web site hosting such sensitive and, in fact, classified information isn't published, I have to wonder whether there is any point hiding the address from the general public in this country, when Al Qaeda, or anyone else come to that, could find it as easily as I did and with it, the names and telephone numbers of the many intelligence agencies personnel involved.

What interests me about this document, which has now slipped into the public domain, isn't so much how, in 1999, we were worrying about mercenaries in Africa but rather how the information technology on which government relied was almost as big a problem as the danger it was attempting to address. "There was a failure of joined-up government; Departments were not pooling their knowledge".

Four years ago, the government had invested in what appears to be a knowledge management application codenamed "Fortress", and while I am unable to quote from the minutes, I can tell you that the committee was concerned it was slower, less reliable, less practical and more costly than using paper.

While I would like to go into more detail, I can't - because the editor won't allow me to - and this does rather raise the usual questions about freedom of information in our society and how this sits with Mr Blair's vision of universal Internet access by 2006.

For me, what is more interesting than worrying where this elusive commodity described as the public domain happens to exist is the evidence that in the most sensitive and "mission critical" areas of government in 1999 IT was failing as miserably and as expensively as everywhere else. Except that it was a secret, and that the security services were seriously considering a return to paper and carrier pigeons.

I rather hope by now, Fortress and the other classified information systems referred to in the document have been sorted out. I wonder, if the debacle last week over a "silly" and "non-existent" terrorist threat to the London Underground, another example of a more recent information management problem?

When we think of joined-up government, we naturally look towards the more mundane aspects of the public sector and the wins and losses that are an everyday part of reporting the struggle towards the 2005 target of 100% service delivery.

We forget that below the surface, there are the systems supporting the national critical infrastructure and intelligence communities that cost the taxpayer many millions of pounds from budgets that will never see the light of day. In this twlight world, the prospect of technology failure could have consequences that none of us would wish to consider too deeply.

What is your view?
Do you suspect that systems are secretly failing? >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the Web site. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Zentelligence Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of the futurist writer, broadcaster and Computer Weekly columnist Simon Moores.

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