Terrible teen tales

May 31, 2007

Having just surfaced from a 48-hour bout of writing a paper that should have been finished days ago, lack of sleep is probably making me unduly flippant about the panics-du-jour over young people. But honestly… ‘Teenagers lured into meeting virtual strangers’:

One in five teenagers has met someone face-to-face whom they first encountered on the internet, according to research into the risks taken by young people online.

Well, OK, some of them may well need a bit of health-and-safety advice – but ‘lured’? Presumably not everyone turned out to be a hairy 40-year-old man with a penchant for pretending to like My Chemical Romance, or I’m sure we would have heard about it. Maybe some of them met heterosexual people of the same sex as themselves – and even the same age. Now there’s a thought.

The study found that teenagers also freely hand out personal information to strangers. Details divulged include full name (30 per cent), address (12 per cent), mobile number (20 per cent) and where they go to school (46 per cent), while 9 per cent had posted family photos.

It doesn’t really sound as if ‘teenagers’ are handing out information particularly freely if 70% didn’t disclose their full name and 88% didn’t disclose their address.

The mother of a 16yo boy laments: “Up until a few years ago I felt I had good parental control. Now I don’t.” I know the feeling – sometimes the reality that one’s children are growing up takes one by surprise. I remember a friend having real trouble persuading her father that she was in fact an adult, and making fellow tube passengers laugh out loud when she hissed in exasperation: “Look, Dad, I’m a grown woman. I’m a wife and a mother. Actually, I’m a grandmother!

Meanwhile, over at the Guardian:

Watching pop videos featuring thin, scantily clad women for just 10 minutes was enough to drive down girls’ satisfaction with their body shape, according to a study which appears in the journal Body Image.

Researchers fear the damage inflicted on the self-image of girls as they prepare to leave schools and sixth form colleges is widespread, given the near ubiquity of music videos on television and on big screens in clothes shops, cafes and bars.

Ah, once upon a time Twiggy and Barbie Dolls took the rap. If creating scapegoats for the last few decades hasn’t worked, maybe we should make some effort to improve girls’ self-esteem instead of publishing stories about how damage-prone they are.


Fingerprints and lies

May 29, 2007

Tarique reports that his children’s head teacher is not exactly setting the best of examples when it comes to honesty.

(HT: Pippa)


May 29, 2007

From today’s Independent:

Ministers had hoped to begin rolling out a national computer system this year that would enable police to get instant details of criminal offences committed by a person working with children or vulnerable adults. But the Home Office has cancelled the launch after software failed in tests. It was the latest in a series of government information technology projects to be plagued by problems.

…Meanwhile, a database of gun owners has still not been created, 11 years after the Dunblane massacre, and is facing further delays. The National Firearms Licensing Management System was intended to link into the police national computer by next month. But that has been postponed for another two months as some forces struggle with “data cleansing”.

Sunday reading

May 27, 2007

Given that we’re flailing around in a sea of DNA, fingerprints and Gillick competence at the moment (it’s like buses – they all come along at once) it’s just as well that we can lazily redirect you to two good comment pieces in the Sundays. And we’re not saying that only because they both give our recent briefing on children’s DNA retention a mention.

David Davis is in the Independent asking whether Brown will restore the civil liberties that have disappeared under Blair.

Henry Porter has a mighty call to action in the Observer:

What makes our apathy so striking is that even police officers are beginning to speak out about the state we’re creating. Ian Readhead, head of the Association of Chief Police Officers data protection group, warned that we were moving to an ‘Orwellian situation’ with cameras being installed in peaceful villages such as Stockbridge in Hampshire. Mr Readhead, also deputy chief constable of Hampshire, said if the spread of cameras continued, Britain would not be a country he would want to live in.

His comments followed those by the acting chief constable of Suffolk, Colin Langham-Fitt, who criticised the growth of CCTV and the government’s ID card scheme. If these officers are expressing concern, we can safely conclude that it is time for us to show something more than the bovine compliance of the last few years.

Every Child at risk

May 27, 2007

An excellent piece from Victoria McDonald in the New Statesman dealing with the aspect of database-mania that is most often overlooked – security:

I firmly believe that before committing any of this information to a national database, the public must be assured that it is secure.

The children’s index is, after all, a system that will store the details of 11 million children and be available to teachers, social workers and others with a “need to know”. The checks and balances, we are told, include ensuring all users undergo training and an enhanced criminal records bureau check. Every request will be audited.

But if these security fears are groundless, why has the education minister, Lord Adonis, said: “Children who have a reason for not being traced, for example where there is a threat of domestic violence or where the child has celebrity status, will have their details concealed”?

(We’ll overlook the fact that she has fallen into the ‘child protection’ trap and repeated the government’s fallacy that the Index – or ‘ContactPoint’ if you want to be modern – was a response to Victoria Climbie’s death. The correct timeline is here)

It’s good to share

May 25, 2007

The Information Commissioner has published guidelines on information-sharing (pdf) for local authorities. Worth reading the whole thing – it’s only 3 pages.

Amongst the paragraphs that particularly caught our eye are:

“Our starting point will be to look at the effect of information sharing on individuals. If there is no risk of real unfairness or unwarranted detriment, we will not seek to use our powers to prevent the sharing”


“Some information, for example that relating to a person’s health, is considered particularly sensitive and most people would probably expect their consent to be obtained prior to it being shared”

…which makes it sound like a matter of picky, personal preference rather than something intimately connected with the Data Protection Act 1998.

We strongly recommend some essential bank holiday reading: the section on data protection, and the circumstances in which ‘sensitive’ data can be shared, contained in Chapter 7 of the FIPR report (pdf) to the ICO on children’s databases. Douwe Korff manages to make this traditionally fearsome area of law easy to follow.

Who do you think you are?

May 23, 2007

I’m having an existential crisis. From the FT:

Google’s ambition to maximise the personal information it holds on users is so great that the search engine envisages a day when it can tell people what jobs to take and how they might spend their days off.

How do I know I’m not just a Sim in someone else’s game?

Steeped in DNA

May 22, 2007

If we’re a bit quiet at the moment, it’s because we’ve been working hard on children’s DNA retention. Still no figures from the Home Office but, having pulled together all the data we have so far, Genewatch has done some impressive stuff with calculators while we effete, artsy types looked on in humble admiration.

The outcome is this press release:

In a briefing published today based on Home Office figures, GeneWatch UK and Action on Rights for Children calculate that the National DNA Database contains the records of at least 100,000 children and young people who have not committed any criminal offence(1). In the past year alone, more than 80,000 innocent children and young people were arrested in England and Wales and added to the database. (continue reading)

The briefing is here.

Pass it on

May 22, 2007

Today is the last day to sign up to this petition:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to legislate to require all UK Police forces to delete DNA data from persons not convicted of an offence.


May 20, 2007

This seems to be becoming such a regular feature that I abbreviated the title. I’ve just been sent a link to HM Revenue and Customs’ evidence to the Public Accounts Committee (No! Come back! I promise you it’s fascinating!) on the tax credits fiasco that has so far cost us around £2bn.

There are several contributory factors, including the famously insecure website that allowed a £50m fraud to be perpetrated, and a catalogue of software problems, as this excerpt from the evidence explains:

Q72 Mr Williams: … I switch again to the software errors. We are told that 199 software errors are still not remedied. That sounds to me like a lot. Who supplied the software?

Mr Gray: The majority of the software would have been supplied under the Inland Revenue’s former contract with EDS—

[ ]

Q74 Mr Williams: How long have the software errors been identified but not remedied?

Mr Gray: They were progressively identified over the first two or three years of the operation of Tax Credits.

Q75 Mr Williams: So how many were in total there originally, then?

Mr Gray: There were significantly more than that originally, but I am afraid I do not—

Q76 Mr Williams: There must have been, if it took three or four years, but how many? You know that there are 199 outstanding; how many have been dealt with?

Mr Gray: Quite a large number—

Mr Williams: No, not “quite a large number”. “Quite a large number” is an insignificant answer. How many errors have been addressed?

Mr Gray: I cannot give you a precise figure. I can certainly let you have that figure separately. What we have done very deliberately in the early years of the system is to seek to address those errors that were having the biggest impact in the system. That might have been a relatively small number of errors but they were having the most significant impact on the operation of the system.

Q77 Mr Williams: I would like a note off you giving a precise indication of what errors have been dealt with, in addition to those that have not been. Having identified them all—you do not remember a grand total at all—was any penalty clause invoked against the supplier?

Mr Gray: Well, I think—

Mr Williams: Other than saying, “Come and put it right”?

Mr Gray: As you are aware from an earlier hearing, Mr Williams, we have reached a settlement with EDS in relation to errors in the initial building of the Tax Credits computer system and it is in the process of paying us total compensation of £71.25 million.

Mr Williams: £71 million.

Mr Gray: £71.25 million.

Q78 Mr Williams: Out of a total contract price of?

Mr Gray: Sorry. Again, I do not have that figure, but I can let you have it.

In answer to that last question, a footnote adds:

The EDS contract ran for 10 years and the total revenues under it were of the order of £2,500 million as was explained at the Committee’s hearing in December 2005 (Q212-213) in the 15 months to 30 June 2004 EDS earned revenue of £504.6 million from the contract and this gave rise to a profit of £121.3 million.

Still on the subject of Tax Credits, there’s also this from a few days ago:

HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has apologised to 8,000 tax credit claimants for sending their bank details to other claimants.

They do seem to be having trouble with this new-fangled IT malarkey.

Protection v welfare

May 20, 2007

We’ve written several times about one of the core problems with the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda – the confusion of child protection with more general child welfare. Via Carlotta comes this eloquent quote expressing exactly the concerns of child protection specialists:

Those at the top promote the view that the role of the children’s social worker is to support families and provides services for those in need. In recent years social services departments have been re-focusing services from child protection to family support. The new organisational frameworks being put in place by the Every Child Matters agenda aims to develop a needs-led approach but this has been associated with a loss of clarity and focus on child protection matters.

In practice this means that more initial referrals are treated as child-care problem enquiries as opposed to child protection investigations. However, it may be hard for the social worker doing an initial assessment to shift the focus to a child protection investigation, if new information emerges. This is a difficult task as the emotional tendency to resist changing direction is very strong, especially if social workers see themselves as having a caring role. Whilst integration of protection and support may often be beneficial, child protection investigations, which require a certain emotional detachment and a more probing approach, would benefit from being separated out.

Safe in their hands (5)

May 19, 2007

From the Register:

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has closed its online service for visa applicants from India while it investigates a security breach that made the personal details of visa applicants available online…

The security hole was originally reported to both VFS and the British High Commission more than a year ago but no action was taken.

The systems in Russia and Nigeria have also been taken down.

Damian Green, immigration shadow, said:

“This government cannot even run a simple online visa application system without betraying all the sensitive information. What hope has it got of protecting the integrity of the National Identity Card Register which will hold dozens of pieces of sensitive information of every adult in the country?”

Yes, or ‘ContactPoint’, or the eCAF system, which will hold the in-depth personal profile of 1 in 3 children – a darned sight more than ‘dozens’ of pieces of sensitive data.

Turkeys disapply Xmas

May 18, 2007

Head over to Blogzilla for some truly appalling news.

Quick, look busy!

May 18, 2007

In the past, we’ve certainly mentioned the total waste of time and money over the past few years on truancy sweeps. As truancy figures continue to climb,new DfES guidance on sweeps contains the following:

Truancy sweeps can provide an opportunity to promote the importance of regular school attendance and can act as an effective preventative measure. They provide an opportunity to demonstrate that those involved in sweeps are taking action to reduce truancy

Given that there’s no evidence for the first two assertions, it’s understandable that they qualify them with the word ‘can’. (As in:‘This product can improve the appearance of wrinkles’.) As for that last sentence, roughly translated, it means: “well at least it looks as if we’re doing something”.

Taming the elephant

May 17, 2007

Via Bruce Schneier, a thought-provoking paper from Viktor Mayer-Schönberger in Harvard’s JFK School of Government, on the need to build ‘forgetfulness’ into computers:

If whatever we do can be held against us years later, if all our impulsive comments are preserved, they can easily be combined into a composite picture of ourselves. Afraid how our words and actions may be perceived years later and taken out of context, the lack of forgetting may prompt us speak less freely and openly.

This is the temporal version of a panoptic society, in which everything is being watched; it is a society in which most of what is being recorded and collected is being preserved. Regardless of other concerns we may have, it is hard to see how such an unforgetting world could offer us the open society that we are used to today.

A major drawback of the increasing surveillance of children is that CCTV, tracking devices and databases don’t know when to turn a blind eye – a skill that parents and teachers develop to an advanced level.

When data, risk-assessments and in-depth profiles of a child can be stored indefinitely, that drawback becomes a major problem. Does anyone really want to remember their every childhood misdeed? Those little acts of spitefulness or dishonesty, the episodes of shame or pain? Part of our growth into adulthood is about constructing a version of ourselves that we can live with. Time helps us to bury grim or embarrassing memories, or at least sand the splinters off them, so that we can write ourselves a reasonably coherent and manageable autobiography. While some may brave rigorous self-analysis, for most of us there can be such a thing as too much truth.

If computers don’t forget, and they contain enough data to chatter people’s childhoods back to them years later, how will anybody cope with that? What about the person with unbearable memories, or the one who passed through a period of complete delinquency? Sometimes reinventing oneself is a survival tactic, or a chance to clean the slate and start again.

And as if that’s not enough, there’s all the stuff that children themselves put on blogs or My Space. Would you really want to see the lovesick letter you posted to the ‘Take That’ fan club message board ever again? There might come a time when the press would want to, though, or an employer, or someone who hated you.

Quite honestly, building forgetfulness into computers sounds like a very healthy idea to me.