Things are not going so well for the HMRC website, which is still experiencing problems. If it is not up and running soon, perhaps we citizens should invoice the tax-man £100 each for the hassle this will cause us.
It is admirable, I suppose, that the government at least attempts to engage with new technology. However, its approach is too ‘twentieth century’ for my liking. The kind of services it provides are what web developers would call Web 1.0 – that is, they resemble the very first generation of web services. Such services were (and in the HMRC case, still are) simply a direct electronic metaphors for other forms of communication. In the case of the tax return, you fill in the boxes in exactly the same way in which you would do so with a pen and paper… only it takes longer to do it online. You cannot make links with information from other places. Even if you have written or typed or calculated your figures elsewhere, you will still have to retype them into the governments forms.
This is quite inefficient. One great benefit of IT, is that one should never, ever have to type anything twice. Once an address exists in an electronic format somewhere, it should be possible to send that information elsewhere, without having to retype it. It is a measure of how small our technological steps are, that many people I know (and, dear reader, many people you know) still retype data, from one programme to another, and from one device to another. Even copying-and-pasting should be redundant by now (in favour of, say, drag-and-drop or even import/export), but still we persist with these old methods.
All that is required is a common format for data, that different types of computer (be it a PC, a laptop, a mobile phone, or a departmental number-cruncher) can read and understand. Sadly, this standardisation process is not yet complete. In the meantime, governments and companies each have to ask you for your data separately, so they can put it in their format and store it on their database.
This is clearly inefficient. Typically, governments will respond to this by attempting more consolidation. HM Customs and Excise, and HM Inland Revenue, become HMRC. What we need, we are told, is one huge database which holds everything…
This raises obvious privacy and security questions, which (as we have seen) often lead to calamity. Imagine, though, if we didn’t have a database for this stuff at all. Or at least, a database which held almost nothing.
This could be achieved if was a common data format for our personal records. Thousands of individual software companies (ranging from multinationals, to a teenager in his bedroom) could develop programmes which produced these common files. Individual users could then generate a single file on their own computer, and e-mail or upload it to the government server when required. They could choose whether their file just met the basic requirements, or whether it included other data that the government might need. The government can perform whatever operation it needs to do on that file: and then delete it. Privacy and ownership stays with the individual citizen and governments do not have to worry about data security, or indeed the maintence of unweildy mainframes – individual taxmen and women could perform their work on their own PCs, at home. When a security breach does occur, the problem may be measured in dozens, not millions of records comprimised.
With such an arrangement in place, the fact that the government has ‘a record’ of you somewhere is much less sinister. It might give you a unique ID number or an authorisation code, to keep records of whether you have submitted your tax return yet. But if it doesn’t, as a matter of course, keep your bank details or personal transactions on file for any longer than it needs to, then those records cannot be misused. Indeed, the responsibility for keeping the records safe returns to the citizen. If you need to converse with the taxman about something, he doesn’t call up your file on his database. You grant him access to your files, on your computer, website or USB pen-drive.
So I think when techies and civil libertarians talk about “rethinking” the way privacy and responsibility work, they mean something like this. Of course, it requires greater computer literacy, and access to computers for those who do not currently have one in their home, but questions about improving access are not the same as questions of system design, or the standardisation of file formats. It is in this latter area where we need a leap of imagination. Instead we seem stuck in the past.