Cavalier Attitudes to Data: 5 Points and 3 Questions

I was inspired by a Westminster eForum event entitled Missing Discs and Mislaid Laptops to write this article.

Why is it that disks, data and laptops appear to go missing with alarming frequency (although, as I say in another article, this appears to have abated recently)? Is it that there is a general lack of understanding about the nature of digital data, and how it is fundamentally different from the old paper-based approach?

You may find it useful to discuss the points made in this article with your students.

We may live in the digital age physically, but mentally many people still exist in the pre-internet era. I say “still”, but this applies as much to children and young people, the so-called “digital natives”, as the rest of us. What I am referring to is the tendency to treat digitised data as merely a more convenient form of paper data. It is this failure to grasp the reality of computerised data that, in my view, underlies the alarming tendency for laptops to be left lying around and disks to be sent through the post. What it comes down to is a lack of understanding, and therefore a lack of respect.

Although people and organisations are often implored, rightly, to make backups of their data in case it is lost or deleted, there is, perhaps, not enough emphasis on the other side of the coin. That is to say, the longevity of data. Incidentally, this is a key issue to try to get across to (young) people in terms of their conduct online, especially in social networking communities. Consider the following five points.

  • Once data is computerised, the cost of duplicating it is pretty much zero, and it is easy to do. I recently read a novel in which someone unearthed sensitive documents from the WW2 era and destroyed them in order to protect people. The possibility of solving the problem in that way may or may not have been viable when the book was written; it is certainly not viable now.

  • Once data is computerised, it can be copied and copied and copied with no loss of quality. It’s not like photocopying, where after making copies of copies a certain number of times it becomes unreadable.

  • Once data is computerised, it can be spread around the world in seconds. Ask anyone who has lost their job or their reputation because of ill-advisedly sending a risqué joke to their friends by email.

  • Once something has been posted to the web, it cannot be unposted. Even if web pages are deleted, archives of them exist on the internet. You can take down a photo you have posted – but someone may have already downloaded it to their own computer and be thinking about sending it to others.

  • Encrypted data may not be as secure as you think.

When you consider these points, it becomes clear that committing data to disk, and then disseminating that information, are not trivial decisions. Organisations (and individuals) need to ask the following three questions before doing so:

1. Do we need this data, in this form? Here is a good example of this way of thinking. Because of the drive to have joined-up databases in the area of children’s services in the UK, it is often taken as read that certain data have to be available to all the professionals concerned with an individual child’s welfare. That is not necessarily true. The goal might be achieved by having a system of flags in the data, ie notes which say things like “Contact the child’s doctor about this”.

2. Have we taken basic precautionary steps to keep data safe? That means giving different people access levels according to their professional needs, as opposed to their level of seniority; making it mandatory for computers to be password-locked when people leave their desks momentarily; making it harder to pass the data on than it is to not do so.

3. What would be the cost, in terms of reputation and litigation, if we get it wrong?

Some of the issues involved can be solved by technical means, such as encryption and other security measures. But on the whole what is needed is a completely different way of looking at computerised data: a different mindset entirely.