Thursday 4 September 2008

Is 'absolute' good enough?

How good is an 'absolute guarantee'? On face value, it should be very good indeed, but there are guarantees and there are guarantees.

Hywel Williams MP has been doggedly pursuing the implications of the contract awarded to Lockheed Martin, the US Defence contractors, to process the next UK Census. His concern, which I and many others share, is that Lockheed Martin is covered by the Patriot Act in the US, which means that the US Government can force the company to disclose any data they process.

In response, the director of the census has said that he can "guarantee absolutely" that this will not happen, because they have a "very strong contract" in place, and the data will be processed by sub-contractors who are "outside US law". I'm sure the census director is a very sincere man, and I'd like to believe him - but I can't. It's not that I don't trust him – it's more that I don't trust the US government.

The situation is quite clear under existing law, but in recent years, the US has developed a propensity for changing the law retrospectively. Worse than that, they have changed their laws in ways which enable them to act in their own courts against non-US citizens and organisations for events which have happened outside US jurisdiction. If they decide that they want this data, I simply do not have the confidence that they won't try and get it, and by appointing a major US defence contractor to run the census, the UK government have given them an opening which they can use.

The census director can and has given a good guarantee about what he and his team will do – but I don't believe that he is in any position to guarantee what other people will do, whatever his contracts might say. I believe that the obsession with outsourcing and privatising work which has led to the granting of the contract to Lockheed Martin has also led to a situation where the confidentiality of the census has potentially been seriously compromised. Hywel is right to be concerned.

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