Not Saussure

December 20, 2006

ID cards, yet again

Filed under: civil liberties, ID cards — notsaussure @ 12:50 am

No chance yet to study and digest the latest twist in the ID cards saga. On the last day before Parliament goes home for Christmas, the BBC reports that

The government has abandoned plans for a giant new computer system to run the national identity cards scheme.

Instead of a single multi-billion pound system, information will be held on three existing, separate databases.

Home Secretary John Reid said it would save cash, but the Tories said ID cards were still a £20bn “white elephant”.

As A Big Stick And A Small Carrot notes, the timing is somewhat obvious.

The report continues,

The controversial National Identity Register (NIR), which Mr Reid says will cost £5.4bn over 10 years, was originally proposed as a single “clean” computer system.

It was going to be built from scratch to avoid repeating mistakes and duplications in the government’s computer systems.

Now the information will be spread across three existing IT systems, including the Department of Work and Pensions’ (DWP) Customer Information Service, which holds national insurance records.

Now, as far as I can make out, the BBC has slightly confused the issue by talking about a ‘clean’ computer system. The actual announcement isn’t that much more informative, but the government appear to be talking about using existing IT systems and hardware — notably the Department of Work and Pensions’ system — rather than the data contained within the system; they specifically say (page 10) that the information won’t simply be copied over, so it should still — I think — be a clean database in the sense that all the data on it is newly entered and verified.

I’m a bit puzzled, though, by Dr Reid’s statement,

Mr Reid denied IT companies had wasted millions on preparation work for an entirely new system, saying the industry had been consulted on the move.

The government has reportedly spent about £35m on IT consultants since the ID cards project began in 2004.

“Doing something sensible is not necessarily a U-turn,” Mr Reid told reporters.

“We have decided it is lower risk, more efficient and faster to take the infrastructure that already exists, although the data will be drawn from other sources.”

Well, as a general principle, I agree that ‘doing something sensible is not necessarily a U-turn,’ but doing the opposite of what your predecessors were insisting on doing certainly is. If they weren’t being sensible in the first place, which I don’t think they were by wanting to stick the whole caboodle into one piece of kit, then being sensible is a U-turn in this particular instance.

However, whether asking the DWP to be in any way involved is a sensible plan is highly questionable. They’ve got one of the worst IT track records in government, which is saying something. Back in 2004, they were responsible for what was described as ‘the biggest computer crash in government history’ while attempting to upgrade to Windows XP (for links to full coverage, see here) and only last September, the BBC reported

A new computer system used to process benefits payments has been scrapped at a cost to the taxpayer of £141m, the BBC has learned.

The IT project, key to streamlining payments by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), was quietly axed at an internal meeting last month.

The project had been central to delivering savings of more than £60m for the DWP by 2008.

It is the latest in a long series of computer problems for the government.

Furthermore, a quick search with the help of Mr Google uncovered the London Local Authorities’ staff bulletins (Word document) which contain plenty of references to apologies issued by the DWP for problems encountered by Housing Benefit staff trying to access the DWP’s Customer Information System, and security warnings the DWP has issued concerning the system — this is the very same DWP system they’re proposing to use for the Identity Cards.

Doesn’t bode well.

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  1. The BBC manages to get itself confused all too often. Good article. I sincerely hope ID cards will prove to be the poll tax issue, as it were, for this government. If all those of us who have said ‘never’ stick to our principles, we’re going to have the ridiculous situation where people born in the UK won’t have the right to step outside it while others are free to come in from the EU.

    Comment by Andy — December 20, 2006 @ 9:50 am

  2. This looks to me like a classic PHB solution. They’ve worked out that the Build From New option will be too expensive, so now the “Oh, just stick it on the existing servers” solution is being mooted.

    Odds are they never actually thought of asking the poor buggers who have to make the idea work, for work is the one thing it won’t do.

    When you’re speccing out a new database system, you need to know how much data it’ll hold, what the data will be used for and how active the database will be. Then you cunningly spec out a database that is to hold X amount of data so it has at least 2X capacity, possibly more.

    What Reid, Blair and their merry band of luddites are proposing is to take our server designed to hold X (plus some bloat) and make it hold something like 100X, possibly more.

    This simply isn’t going to work.

    Increasing the size of a database like this means adding more disk to it, usually in the form of big arrays. Unless the server is a sophisticated cluster (Sun Solaris 10, say), this isn’t a going proposition; you run out of ways to plug in things.

    You also completely blow the existing backup system out of the water, given that it’ll be designed for at most 5X of data.

    Next up, you run out of networking bandwidth, especially in the implementation phase when you’re going to be stuffing data into the system.

    If the system glitches, or fails in any way, you’re well stuffed since not only will it clobber your ID Cards databasing, but it’ll also clobber the existing work it was specced out to do.

    Lots of people will be very unamused by their pensions going wrong.

    All in all, this is probably the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard since the Government mooted the ID Cards database in the first place. Assuredly they haven’t asked anyone who knows about computing if this would work, for it will not.

    Another Glorious Computing Cock-Up for NuLabour. Do they ever succeed at anything?

    Comment by Dr Dan H. — December 20, 2006 @ 1:20 pm

  3. I think ID cards are the new poll tax issue. They simply won’t wash with the populace.

    On another matter, I detect you’re writing more and more as an A Blogger these days, not that you weren’t good before but now, the meat in your posts makes one sit back and reflect.

    I hope you’ll remember your old blogging friends, Notsaussure.

    Comment by james higham — December 20, 2006 @ 6:56 pm

  4. Dr Dan and James — I agree; quite apart from my objections on the grounds of civil liberties, I cannot see how these things will be anything other than a very expensive white elephant.

    If you insist on having them, I can see the security reasons for wanting to split it between servers, but they’ve been pursuing the build-from-new on one server option since the beginning on the basis they couldn’t afford the ideal — build from new on several servers — and have now discovered they can’t afford it.

    They must at the beginning have considered their new solution and rejected it, presumably for the reasons Dr Dan so cogently states. At the moment, their opposition to ID cards seems to me the one incontrovertible argument for voting Conservative in the next election, whatever one’s doubts about the Tories on other scores.

    James — thank you for your kind words. If I’m writing well, it’s in no small part because I’m inspired by your example and that of other BlogPower bloggers. And I’m trying to get round and read and comment and link as much as I can — there’s just such a lot of good stuff there to read!

    Comment by notsaussure — December 20, 2006 @ 10:43 pm

  5. […] Not Saussure has written an excellent article highlighting yet more flaws in plans to introduce ID cards in the UK. Take a look. […]

    Pingback by Not Saussure on ID cards » The Spicy Cauldron » Blog Archive — December 29, 2006 @ 4:45 pm

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