The lost art of keeping a secret

The foundation of British democracy is the secret ballot, no?

Voting this morning, I noticed something that had niggled with me previously (though I am far from being the first person to have noticed it). When I gave my name and address, a man tore me a ballot paper from a book, and the woman with the list of addresses read out a number to the man with the book, who wrote it on the counterfoil.

Didn\’t this mean that they could look at my ballot paper, and identify how I voted by cross-referencing with my electoral roll number, I asked? Yes, answered the Presiding Officer, but only on the orders of an Electoral Court, which was a very rare occcurrence. So the local authority would keep, indefinitely, a record of how every local elector had voted in every election? Yes, but it was kept safe.

The Presiding Officer was a thoroughly respectable looking gent (handlebar moustache, book about lancaster bombers), so I didn\’t pry further. I can also understand why some records are necessary, to test allegations that large numbers of ballots have been handed out as job lots to candidates\’ families and other such malfeasance.

But this secret recording of individual voting patterns still seems a bit rum. I am no more paranoid than one should be, but a lesson of modern times seems to be that all data is eventually leaked and/or fed into government databases. You can easily imagine the security services making a strong case for (limited, of course, checked and balanced) access to such information, so they could identify potential menaces to society voting for \’extremists\’.

We should, I suppose, feel glad that we don\’t live in a repressive surveillance state, that would abuse and misuse such personal information. Shouldn\’t we?

Do as I say, not as I do

There are plenty of serious commentaries on the weird, and increasingly alarming, world of data security after the events of the past few days. This is not one of them.

BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson\’s excellent blog has been following the detail of the story, and provides (or at least does at the time of writing) a link to a PDF file of a sheaf of papers, including print copies of the relevant NAO-HMRC emails (with names blanked out), and an exchange of \’letters of record\’ between Dave Hartnett, the Acting Chairman of HMRC, and Caroline Mawhood, the Deputy Auditor General of the NAO. Mrs Mawhood\’s letterhead includes, for all to see, her email address, and mobile, land-line and fax numbers.

I\’m no expert, but this doesn\’t sound like data protection \’best practice\’ to me. It\’s no excuse for the cock-up at HMRC, but it does perhaps show how easy it is to slip up when you\’re in a hurry.