It's certainly the biggest data protection scandal in British - if not world - history (details here, here and here). A junior tax clerk at HM Revenue and Customs copied a database containing 25 million records on to two CDs. The databases contained the personal details of every single UK citizen who claims child benefit - including their bank details and their mothers' maiden names, which has, for years, been the stock security question in any UK bank. The junior clerk then popped the discs (which were password protected but not encrypted) in the internal post, to be sent down to London. They never arrived. In all, the security leak is estimated to have put 7.25 million families at risk. Of course, there are no certainties that the discs have fallen into malevolent hands. But there is a horrible crushing uncertainty.
The political ramifications of this huge event are only really starting to be felt. It is quite easy to make the argument that this isn't really political in any meaningful sense, by which I mean related to the substance of policy (in fact, Jonathan Freedland cites just such an argument in today's Guardian). After all, some lowly HMRC official (who I imagine looks a bit like this) makes a balls up. What on earth does that have to do with the Chancellor of Exchequer? It is also easy to argue that (as Freedland goes onto, in fact) that the real impact of these events are perceptual.
The opening line of Simon Hoggart's Parliamentary sketch in today's Guardian rather neatly summarises the situation that Alistair Darling finds himself in:
Another day, another disaster - and this one was a stonker. The news that the private records and bank details of 25 million people were lying around on a computer disk, heaven knows where, like a Rockin' Good Christmas CD that's fallen out of a Sunday paper, was greeted by MPs with incredulity. They were less surprised by the fact that Alistair Darling was in charge. Poor Darling, or at least his department, is now seen as an ongoing accident blackspot.
I don't agree that this is wholly about perception. I think this this discussion has policy, as well as political content. Two arguments do suggest this is political in a meaningful sense. The first one was deployed by acting Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable in the Commons yesterday, when he blamed the error on spending cuts that had occurred in the past ten years, which had ensured the civil servants were over worked and prone to making these kinds of errors. That seems a little like political semantics to me (Cable didn't actually quote any figures that I saw).
I think the second argument is much more compelling - and offers real reason to believe that, at the heart of this incident, lies a real policy problem. One of the defining technological developments in the past number of years has been the shrinkage, ubiquity and declining cost of massive data storage. To take one obvious example, your iPod nano can now hold considerably more data than a desktop could a decade ago. By the same token, data has become more moveable, transferable and accessible. Access to the most complete and largest data sources has cascaded down the management structures of large organisations. There can be no doubt that this change has occurred on Labour's watch.
Therefore, it is no good simply arguing that this could have happened under a Tory government. It might have, of course. And there is no reason to suppose a Conservative ideology would pre-dispose to dealing with this any better. But the key point is this wasn't a one off event - a moment of madness where sensitive information was put in the post - but the near-inevitable end product of an inability to understand a new data environment created by a combination of technology and bureaucracy. Government should have spent a significant amount of time and effort in the past ten years trying to understand and develop systems for managing this new environment. Yesterday's events proved that they have not done so adequately and that is the great policy failure in this area.