Sunday, 2 September 2012

midata, the loneliest initiative in Whitehall – 7


... why is the government getting involved in midata,
an initiative which can't deliver any of its stated aims
but which will expose everyone to identity theft?

It's up to the department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS)
to answer that question.

There are two more open forums left in the BIS midata consultation programme
Just email midata@bis.gsi.gov.uk to attend
1 Victoria Street London SW1H 0ET

Let's get an answer


On 3 November 2011, when the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) issued their midata press release, the BBC's technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones interviewed Professor Nigel Shadbolt.

Professor Shadbolt is an expert in artificial intelligence. He and his colleague at the University of Southampton, Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, are co-directors of the Open Data Institute (ODI) ...
... established by the UK Government to innovate, exploit and research Open Data opportunities ...

The new Institute is one of a number of measures that the Government announced ... as part of a larger initiative to boost UK economic growth.
Professor Shadbolt is also chair of the midata programme, related to the ODI, but different.

Mr Cellan-Jones has been around the block a few times and he cut straight to the chase:
Two questions spring to mind - what's the catch for consumers and why is the government getting involved?
He poses that question to Professor Shadbolt at 2'15" in the televised BBC interview and the answer given, with his midata hat on, is that the government wants to encourage the development of an environment in which data is shared.

But the private sector already releases transaction data back to consumers. It doesn't obviously need any more encouragement or legislation.

Entrepreneurs can already develop applications which process that data if they want to. At the start, midata was supposed to be a voluntary scheme. Now BIS have gone beyond trying to "encourage the development of an environment in which data is shared" and moved on to legislation. Why? There's no reason to believe that BIS can create a market in personal data transactions after legislation is introduced any more than they have done in the 400 years of their existence so far.

BIS give no reason to believe that this legislation would expand the economy.

They initially offered consumers control over their personal transaction data, in addition to access to it, but that was a false prospectus and BIS have now had to renege on that offer. Consumers will have no more control over their data after BIS have taken their midata order-making powers than before.

And the benefits of a midata future pictured by BIS seem peculiarly footling. Example #1 of the future offered by midata concerns, of all things, warranties. midata could provide us with a "contracts and warranties dashboard".

For goodness sake, we can already monitor the warranties we have bought with our washing machines if we want to. Do we really need legislation to make that easier? If we don't monitor these warranties now, why would we monitor them any more after BIS have involved themselves?

midata really is lonely. It has no economic argument to support it. It is unaccompanied by any cogent benefits to consumers or the economy. Private sector suppliers and their customers/clients have got on perfectly well without midata for the past 5,000 years. Government ministers can't explain why they are wedded to midata and neither can their officials.

BIS aren't stupid. They know just as well as the rest of us that they haven't answered Mr Cellan-Jones's question, why the government is getting involved. It can't just be to help us monitor our warranties.

We're none the wiser. All we know is that BIS are sufficiently motivated to enact legislation to make midata a reality while being completely incapable of saying why. What really impels BIS in this case?

When, as here, there is a gap between what the government is doing and what it says the temptation is to fill it with all sorts of conspiracy theories.

Let's give ourselves a limit of 13 paragraphs to see what kind of a conspiracy theory we can cook up.

Faced with making a decision, we all have problems. We're no good at getting utilitarian choices right. So says Norman Lamb, minister responsible for midata, in his Foreword to the midata 2012 review and consultation (p.8):
Technology has allowed businesses to understand their customers’ needs and buying patterns to an unprecedented degree. At the moment consumers are at a disadvantage because the vast majority of them do not have the ability to use that same data to help their own decisions. The midata programme aims to redress this imbalance.
If midata ever comes to pass, everyone will have a Personal Data Inventory (PDI) which includes all our transaction data, please see the consultation document, para.2.19, p.24:

A ‘Personal Data Inventory’ has been proposed, with the aim of giving consumers clear information about the types of data which organisations hold about them. This work is still in development by the midata programme participants, but broadly the proposal is that to gain access to their Personal Data Inventory, the customer would have to log-in to a secure website where the Personal Data Inventory would contain a simple explanation of each category of data and if, and how, the data can be accessed by the consumer. The Personal Data Inventory is likely to contain data such as address and contact details, existing tariffs/contracts, payment methods, items purchased, when, value, amount spent per year, usage data.
And thanks to BIS we will have the benefit of a thriving applications industry which processes the data in the PDI to make the right decisions for us.

All that's needed, it seems, is the data. And a wise application. That's all that's missing when we currently try to choose. Only supply the data, and a computer application can make the right decision. Notice what happens here. The pathetically irrational human being in between is cancelled out of the equation.

This imaginary world in which electronic Mary Poppinses run our lives for us is coherent with the picture BIS provide of a midata future in which, for example, an application decides whether we should go out one evening or not, please see A midata future: 10 ways it could shape your choices, example #10, Going out:

So where your favourite restaurant has deals or offers, you could be alerted in advance to take advantage and make a booking. Combined with other services, the programme could also indicate where you could save money or improve your health by eating elsewhere, drinking less or going out less.
Has BIS been infiltrated by mad scientists who believe in the perfectability of human beings by computer? If so, which mad scientists?

You may suspect Professor Shadbolt in the library, with his eerie and recondite expertise in artificial intelligence. Perhaps he is the manipulative genius plotting to bring about a worldwide nightmare utilitarian tyranny?

There is no evidence of that. If anything, Professor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web,
is more likely to be the guilty party. Here he is, being quoted by the Guardian in their Battle for the Internet debate:
... individual users were not yet being allowed to exploit all the information relating to them to make their lives easier. Armed with the information that social networks and other web giants hold about us, he said, computers will be able to "help me run my life, to guess what I need next, to guess what I should read in the morning, because it will know not only what's happening out there but also what I've read already, and also what my mood is, and who I'm meeting later on".
A mooncalf may believe that twaddle but, unless they've gone completely mad, BIS won't.

Conspiracy theory over, obviously we can forget the mad scientists and the subjugation of the human race worldwide. But we have come up with something. The PDI. BIS seem to recommend that we should all have a PDI, stored somewhere on the web – in the cloud – and containing all our transaction data. And they seem to recommend that third party computer applications should be given access to that data to help us to make the best decisions for ourselves.

This is strange coming from the UK government, or any other reputable body.

Identity theft is a major problem on the web. CIFAS, the Home Office, Financial Fraud Action UK, the UK Cards Association, Equifax, Experian, the Royal Mail, Callcredit, HM Revenue & Customs, DVLA, the Identity & Passport Service, the Serious Organised Crime Agency, the Metropolitan Police, the City of London Police, the Scotish Business Crime Centre, the Financial Services Authority, the British Bankers' Association, BSIA and NFA have all come together to form IdentityTheft.org.uk to make people more aware of the problems of identity theft and to help them to avoid it.

And yet here's BIS suggesting that we should collect our transaction data together in one place, store it with one set of complete strangers in a PDI somewhere on the web and then let another set of complete strangers access it – exactly the opposite of what IdentityTheft.org.uk recommend.

Once again, with feeling, and Rory Cellan-Jones, why is the government getting involved in midata, an initiative which can't deliver any of its stated aims but which will expose everyone to identity theft?

It's up to BIS to answer that question. There are two more open forums left in their midata consultation, on 4 and 6 September 2012. Just email midata@bis.gsi.gov.uk to attend. Let's get an answer at last to Mr Cellan-Jones's question.

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