Monday, September 05, 2005

Hidden Truths

The Department for Transport (DfT) has fallen foul of the same embarrassing mistake made by Alastair Campbell's communications and strategy unit in No. 10 Downing Street in 2003. The story is especially interesting for archivists because of the wider implications of the publication of electronic records on web sites.

Readers may recall that in February 2003 Downing Street published its now famous dodgy dossier justifying government policy on military intervention in Iraq. The invading forces' failure to substantiate its claims raised questions about the quality of British intelligence work quite apart from issues of accountability.

The dossier, entitled Iraq - Its Infrastructure of Concealment, Deception and Intimidation was largely a plagiarised version of an article entitled Iraq's Security and Intelligence Network: A Guide and Analysis by Ibrahim al-Marashi, a postgraduate student at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, California, USA, published in the Middle East Review of International Affairs in September 2002. However what attracted the attention of Internet sleuths was hidden metadata in the Word document published by No. 10.

The metadata revealed the names of the compilers or plagiarists, three of whom were Downing Street press officers and only one a Foreign Office official. This document was passed to Colin Powell for his presentation to the United Nations General Assembly, thus setting in train the disastrous allied intervention in Iraq.

Internet sleuth Richard M. Smith states the Blair government learned its lesson well with regard to publishing Microsoft Word documents. However, as this blog aims to show, this is not true.

To bring the story up-to-date the DfT has published online a censored letter to a member of the public who had applied under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act for the divulging of information on the UK government's metrication programme. The letter is censored presumably so as not to transgress against that individual's rights under the Data Protection Act 1998. Unfortunately for the DfT, it isn't as simple as that.

A Word document is in question again, this time a letter from the Road Traffic Division of the DfT in which the author declines to supply certain information under the FoI secions 12 and and 42. We need not concern ourselves overmuch with the UK Metric Association (UKMA)'s campaign of misinformation (to which the DfT is presumably not party) or the long-running dispute about the possible future metrication of British road signs. Readers can instead read about this in the British Weights and Measures Association (BWMA) web site (under News in Brief).

What concerns us is civil service carelessness in divulging confidential personal data.

Robin Paice: exposed

John Gardner, director of BWMA, has found hidden metadata in the online letter from the DfT to the applicant containing information comprising the his name, the number of replies made by the department to him and a reference to the recipient's parent organisation. The recipient is thus identified as Robin Paice, chairman of the UKMA, who has claimed that his organisation had not recently complained to the European Commission about the UK government's slowness to metricate. The DfT letter blows his cover and seriously embarrasses the UKMA and its political supporters including Lord Howe, a member of the House of Lords.

Lord Howe: embarrassed

Other supporters of UKMA likely to be embarrassed are Lord Taverne, Ian Taylor MP, Dr. Nick Palmer MP (all patrons of UKMA) and Malcolm Bruce MP, Chris Davies MEP and Chris Huhne MEP (parliamentary supporters of UKMA).

The National Archives (TNA) publishes guidance on publishing electronic records on government web sites and although there are references to audits and risk assessments, they appear not to have made any specific warnings about scrubbing hidden metadata:

TNA Good practice in managing electronic documents using Office 97 on a local area network click here


TNA Management of electronic records on websites and intranets: an ERM toolkit click here

Information on scrubbing hidden metadata is to a certain extent provided by Microsoft click here

Let us hope TNA's Records Management Department and Digital Preservation department can produce some guidance on this and influence government departments accordingly.

In the interim, DfT is inadvertently in breach of the Data Protection Act. However, the heritage professions can rejoice at the discomfiture of the devious activities of UKMA, surely one of the main enemies of Britain's cultural heritage.

Further reading:

British Weights and Measures Association

Bruce Schneier's web log click here

Richard M. Smith's web site ComputerBytesMan


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