The disastrous loss of data witnessed yesterday from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs just goes to underline what was recommended in The Royal Academy of Engineering’s report Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance earlier this year.

The report recommended that systems which involve the collection, storage and use of large amounts of data should be developed in order to diminish the possibility of failure as far as reasonably practicable. The fact that it was possible for such a large amount of data to be downloaded and stored, unencrypted, on a CD showed that there was negligible use of available technologies and appropriate staff procedures to prevent such a basic yet far reaching failure. The Academy report recommends that personal data should never be stored in unencrypted form, a recommendation that the HMRC clearly failed to meet.

The government and the public sector handle extremely large volumes of data often collected on an involuntary basis. The Royal Academy of Engineering believes that the public sector should therefore set the gold standard for the secure use and storage of personal data. The tragedy of this case is that other organisations will learn from the HMRC’s catastrophic mistake rather than their exemplary practices.

Professor Nigel Gilbert, FREng, Chair of the working group on Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance said: “This demonstrates the need to design privacy into systems that store and process data in order to prevent human error as far as possible. The Royal Academy of Engineering also supports the Information Commissioner’s call for proactive powers of inspection. This catastrophe shows the consequences of not acting until data protection procedures have been breached.”

Notes for editors

  1. The Academy’s report Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance was published in March 2007.
  2. Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Tonia Page at The Royal Academy of Engineering