A game changer – Ferguson v British Gas

Back in April I wrote an article for the IAIDQ’s Quarterly Member Newsletter picking up on my niche theme, Common Law liability for poor quality information – in other words, the likelihood that poor quality information and poor quality information management practices will result in your organisation (or you personally) being sued.

I’ve written and presented on this theme many times over the past few years and it always struck me how people started off being in the “that’s too theoretical” camp but by the time I (and occasionally my speaking/writing partner on this stuff, Mr Fergal Crehan) had finished people were all but phoning their company lawyers to have a chat.

To an extent, I have to admit that in the early days much of this was theoretical, taking precedents from other areas of law and trying to figure out how they fit together in an Information Quality context. However, in January 2009 a case was heard in the Court of Appeal in England and Wales which has significant implications for the Information Quality profession and which has had almost no coverage (other than coverage via the IAIDQ and myself). My legal colleagues describe it as “ground breaking” for the profession because of the simple legal principle it creates regarding complex and silo’d computing environments and the impact of disparate and plain crummy data. I see it as a clear rallying cry that makes it crystal clear that poor information quality will get you sued.

Recent reports (here and here) and anecdotal evidence suggest that in the current economic climate, the risk to companies of litigation is increasing. Simply put, the issues that might have been brushed aside or resolved amicably in the past are now life and death issues, at least in the commercial sense. As a result there is now a trend to “lawyer up” at the first sign of trouble. This trend is likely to accelerate in the context of issues involving information, and I suspect, particularly in financial services.

A recent article in the Commercial Litigation Journal (Frisby & Morrison, 2008) supports this supposition. In that article, the authors conclude:

“History has shown that during previous downturns in market conditions, litigation has been a source of increased activity in law firms as businesses fight to hold onto what they have or utilise it as a cashflow tool to avoid paying money out.”

The Case that (should have) shook the Information Quality world

The case of Ferguson v British Gas was started by Ms. Ferguson, a former customer of British Gas who had transferred to a new supplier but to whom British Gas continued to send invoices and letters with threats to cut off her supply, start legal proceedings, and report her to credit rating agencies.

Ms Ferguson complained and received assurances that this would stop but the correspondence continued. Ms Ferguson then sued British Gas for harassment.

Among the defences put forward by British Gas were the arguments that:

(a) correspondence generated by automated systems did not amount to harassment, and (b) for the conduct to amount to harassment, Ms Ferguson would have to show that the company had “actual knowledge” that its behaviour was harassment.

The Court of Appeal dismissed both these arguments. Lord Justice Breen, one of the judges on the panel for this appeal, ruled that:

“It is clear from this case that a corporation, large or small, can be responsible for harassment and can’t rely on the argument that there is no ‘controlling mind’ in the company and that the left hand didn’t know what the right hand was doing,” he said.

Lord Justice Jacob, in delivering the ruling of the Court, dismissed the automated systems argument by saying:

“[British Gas] also made the point that the correspondence was computer generated and so, for some reason which I do not really follow, Ms. Ferguson should not have taken it as seriously as if it had come from an individual. But real people are responsible for programming and entering material into the computer. It is British Gas’s system which, at the very least, allowed the impugned conduct to happen.”

So what does this mean?

In this ruling, the Court of Appeal for England and Wales has effectively indicated a judicial dismissal of a ‘silo’ view of the organization when a company is being sued. The courts attribute to the company the full knowledge it ought to have had if the left hand knew what the right hand was doing. Any future defence argument grounded on the silo nature of organizations will likely fail. If the company will not break down barriers to ensure that its conduct meets the reasonable expectations of its customers, the courts will do it for them.

Secondly, the Court clearly had little time or patience for the argument that correspondence generated by a computer was any less weighty or worrisome than a letter written by a human being. Lord Justice Jacob’s statement places the emphasis on the people who program the computer and the people who enter the information. The faulty ‘system’ he refers to includes more than just the computer system; arguably, it also encompasses the human factors in the systemic management of the core processes of British Gas.

Thirdly, the Court noted that perfectly good and inexpensive avenues to remedy in this type of case exist through the UK’s Trading Standards regulations. Thus from a risk management perspective, the probability of a company being prosecuted for this type of error will increase.

British Gas settled with Ms Ferguson for an undisclosed amount and was ordered to pay her costs.

What does it mean from an Information Quality perspective?

From an Information Quality perspective, this case clearly shows the legal risks that arise from (a) disconnected and siloed systems, and (b) inconsistencies between the facts about real world entities that are contained in these systems.

It would appear that the debt recovery systems in British Gas were not updated with correct customer account balances (amongst other potential issues).

Ms. Ferguson was told repeatedly by one part of British Gas that the situation was resolved, while another part of British Gas rolled forward with threats of litigation. The root cause here would appear to be an incomplete or inaccurate record or a failure of British Gas’ systems. The Court’s judgment implies that that poor quality data isn’t a defence against litigation.

The ruling’s emphasis on the importance of people in the management of information, in terms of programming computers (which can be interpreted to include the IT tasks involved in designing and developing systems) and inputting data (which can be interpreted as defining the data that the business uses, and managing the processes that create, maintain, and apply that data) is likewise significant.

Clearly, an effective information quality strategy and culture, implemented through people and systems, could have avoided the customer service disaster and litigation that this case represents.  The court held the company accountable for not breaking down barriers between departments and systems so that the left-hand of the organization knows what the right-hand is doing.

Furthermore, it is now more important than ever that companies ensure the accuracy of information about customers, their accounts, and their relationship with the company, as well as ensuring the consistency of that information between systems. The severity of impact of the risk is relatively high (reputational loss, cost of investigations, cost of refunds) and the likelihood of occurrence is also higher in today’s economic climate.

Given the importance of information in modern businesses, and the likelihood of increased litigation during a recession, it is inevitable: poor quality information will get you sued.

Bank of Ireland Double Charging – a clarifying post

Having spent the day trading IMs and talking to journalists about the Bank of Ireland Laser Card double charging kerfuffle, I thought it would be appropriate to write a calmer piece which spells out a bit more clearly my take on this issue, the particular axe I am grinding, and what this all means. I hope I can explain this in terms that can be clearly understood.

What is LASER?

For the benefit of people reading this who aren’t living and working in Ireland I’ll very quickly explain what LASER card is.

LASER is a debit card system which operates in Ireland. It is in operation in over 70,000 businesses in Ireland. It is operated by Laser Card Services Ltd. Laser Card Services is owned by seven of Ireland’s financial services companies (details here) and three of these offer merchant services to Retailers (AIB, Bank of Ireland, and Ulster Bank). In addition to straightforward payment services, LASER allows card holders to get “cashback” from retailers using their card.

There are currently over 3million Laser Cardholders nationwide, who generated more than €11.5billion in retail sales in 2008. On average, over 300 Laser card transactions are recorded per minute in Ireland.

How it works (or at least the best stab I can get at it)

As Jennifer Aniston used to say in that advert… “now for the science bit”. Children and persons of a sensitive disposition should look away now.

One problem I’ve encountered here is actually finding any description of the actual process that takes your payment request (when you put your card in the reader and enter your pin) , transfers the money from you to the retailer, and then records that transaction on your bank statement.  Of course, there are valid security reasons for that.

So, I’ve had to resort to making some educated guesses based on my experience in information management and some of the comments in the statement I received from Bank of Ireland back in June. If I have any of this wrong, I trust that someone more expert than me will provide the necessary corrections.

  1. The card holder presents their card to the retailer and puts it in the card reader. The card reader pulls the necessary account identifier information for the card holder for transmission to the LASER processing system (we’ll call this “Laser Central” to avoid future confusion).
  2. The retailer’s POS (point of sale) system passes the total amount of the transaction, including any Cashback amount and details of the date, time, and retailer, to the Laser card terminal.  Alternatively, the Retailer manually inputs the amount on the Laser POS terminal.
  3. This amount and the amount of the transaction is transmitted to the Laser payment processing systems.
  4. ‘Laser Central’ then notifies the cardholder’s bank which places a “hold” on an amount of funds in the customer’s account. This is similar in concept to the “pre-authorisation” that is put on your credit card when you stay in a hotel.
  5. At a later stage, ‘Laser Central’ transmits a reconciliation of transactions which were actually completd to the Laser payment processing sytem. This reconciliation draws down against the “hold” that has been put on funds in the card holder’s account, which results in the transaction appearing on the card holder’s bank statement.

Point 5 explains why it can sometimes take a few days for transactions to hit your account when you pay with your laser card.

The Problem

The problem that has been reported by Bank of Ireland today and which was picked up on by Simon over at Tuppenceworth.ie in May is that customers are being charged twice  for transactions. In effect, the “hold” is being called on the double.

Back in May, Bank of Ireland explained this as being (variously):

  • A problem caused by a software upgrade
  • A problem caused by retailers not knowing how to use their terminals properly
  • A combination of these two

The Software Upgrade theory would impact on steps 3,4, and 5 of the “strawman” Laser process I have outlined above. The Retailer error theory would impact on steps 1 and 2 of that process, with potentially a knock on onto step 5 if transactions are not voided correctly when the Retailer makes an error.

But ultimately, the problem is that people are having twice as much money deducted from their accounts, regardless of how it happens in the course of this process. And as one of the banks that owns and operates Laser Card Services, Bank of Ireland has the ability to influence the governance and control of each step in the process.

The Risk of Poor Information Quality

Poor quality information is one of the key problems facing businesses today. A study by The Data Warehousing Institute back in 2002 put the costs to the US economy at over US$600billion. Estimated error rates in databases across all industries and from countries around the world range between 10% and 35%. Certainly, at the dozens of confernces I’ve attended over the years, no-one has ever batted an eyelid when figures like this have been raised. On a few occasions delegates have wondered who the lucky guy was who only had 35% of his data of poor quality.

The emerging Information Quality Management profession world wide is represented by the International Association for Information & Data Quality (IAIDQ).

Information Quality is measured on a number of different attributes  (some writers call these Dimensions). The most common attributes include:

  • Completeness (is all the information you need to have in a record there?)
  • Consistency (do the facts stack up against business rules you might apply- for example, do you have “males” with female honorifics? Do you have multiple transactions being registered against one account within seconds of each other or with the same time stamp?)
  • Conformity (again, a check against business rules  – does the data conform to what you would expect. Letters in a field you expect to contain just numbers is a bad thing)
  • Level of duplication ( simply put… how many of these things do you have two or more of? And is that a problem?)
  • Accuracy (how well does your data reflect the real-word entity or transaction that it is supposed to represent?)

In models developed by researchers at MIT there are many more dimensions, including “believability”.

In Risk Mangement there are three basic types of control:

  • Reactive (shit, something has gone wrong… fix it fast)
  • Detective (we’re looking out for things that could go wrong so we can fix them before they become a problem that has a significant impact)
  • Preventative (we are checking for things at the point of entry and we are not letting crud through).

Within any information process there is the risk that the process won’t work the way the designers thought/hoped/planned/prayed (delete as appropriate) it would.  In an ideal world, information would go in one end (for example the fact that you had paid €50 for a pair of shoes in Clarks on O’Connell Street in Dublin on a given day) and would come out the other end either transformed into a new piece of knowledge through the addition of other facts and contexts (Clarks for example might have you on a Loyalty card scheme that tracks the type of shoes you buy) or simply wind up having the desired outcome… €50 taken from your account and €50 given to Clarks for the lovely pair of loafers you are loafing around in. This is what I term the “Happy Path Scenario”.

However lurking in the wings like Edwardian stage villains is the risk that something may occur which results in a detour off that “Happy Path” on to what I have come to call the “Crappy Path”. The precise nature of this risk can depend on a number of factors. For example, in the Clarks example, they may have priced the shoes incorrectly in their store database resulting in the wrong amount being deducted from your account (if you didn’t spot it at the time). Or, where information is manually rekeyed by retailers, you may find yourself walking out of a shop with those shoes for a fraction of what they should have cost if the store clerk missed a zero when keying in the amount (€50.00 versus €5.00).

Software upgrades or bugs in the software that moves the bits of facts around the various systems and processes can also conspire to tempt the process from the Happy Path. For example if, in the Laser card process, it was to be found that there was a bug that was simply sending the request for draw down of funds against a “hold” to a bank twice before the process to clear the “hold” was called, then that would explain the double dipping of accounts.

However, software bugs usually (but not always) occur in response to a particular set of real-world operational circumstances.  Software testing is supposed to bring the software to as close to real-world conditions as possible. At the very least the types of “Happy Path” and “Crappy Path” scenarios that have been identified need to be tested for (but this requires a clear process focus view of how the software should work). Where the test environment doesn’t match the conditions (e.g. types of data) or other attributes (process scenarios) of the “real world” you wind up with a situation akin to what happened to Honda when they entered Formula 1 and spent buckets of cash on a new wind tunnel that didn’t come close to matching actual track conditions.

This would be loosely akin to giving a child a biscuit and then promising them a second it if they tidied their room, but failing to actually check if the room was tidied before giving the biscuit. You are down two bikkies and the kid’s room still looks like a tip.

In this case, there is inconsistency of information. The fact of two “draw downs” against the same “hold” is inconsistent. This is a scenario that software checks ont he bank’s side could potentially check for and flag for review before processing them. I am assuming of course that there is some form of reference for the “hold” that is placed on the customer’s account so that the batch processing knows to clear it when appropriate.

In the case of my horrid analogy, you just need to check within your own thought processes if the posession of two biscuits is consistent with an untidy room. If not, then the second biscuit should be held back. This is a detective control. Checking the room and then trying chasing the kid around the houseto get the biscuit back is a reactive control

Another potential risk that might arise is that the retailer may have failed to put a transaction through correctly and then failed to clear it correctly before putting through a second transaction for the same amount. This should, I believe, result in two “holds” for the exact same amount being placed on the customer’s account within seconds of each other. One of these holds would be correct and valid and the process should correctly deduct money and clear that hold. However it may be (and please bear in mind that at this point I am speculating based on experience not necessarily an in-depth insight into how Laser processing works) that the second hold is kept active and, in the absence of a correct clearance, it is processed through.

This is a little more tricky to test for in a reactive or detective controls. It is possible that I liked my shoes so much that I bought a second pair within 20 seconds of the first pair. Not probable, but possible. And with information quality and risk management ultimately you are dealing with probability. Because, as Sherlock Holmes says, when you have eliminated the impossible what remains, no matter how improbable, is the truth.

Where the retailer is creating “shadow transactions” the ideal control is to have the retailer properly trained to ensure consistent and correct processes are followed at all time. However, if we assume that the idea of a person validly submitting more than one transaction in the same shop for the same amount within a few moments of each other is does not conform with what we’d expect to happen then one can construct a business rule that can be checked by software tools to pick out those types of transaction and prevent them going through to the stage of the process that takes money from the cardholder’s account.

Quite how these errors are then handled is another issue however. Some of them (very few I would suggest) would be valid transactions. And this again is where there is a balance between possiblity and probability. It is possible that the transaction is valid, but it is more probable that it is an error. The larger the amount of the transaction, the more likely that it would be an error (although I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve bought a Faberge egg on my Laser card only to crave another nanoseconds later).

Another key area of control of these kinds of risk is, surprisingly, the humble call centre. Far too often organisations look on call centres as being mechanisms to push messages to customers. When a problem might exist, often the best way to assess the level of risk is to monitor what is coming into your call centres. Admittedly it is a reactive control once the problem has hit, but it can be used as a detective control if you monitor for “breaking news”, just as the Twitter community can often swarm around a particular  hashtag.

The Bank of Ireland situation

The Bank of Ireland situation is one that suggests to me a failure of Information governance and Information risk management at at least some level.

  1. It seems that Call Centre staff were aware in May of a problem with double dipping of transactions. This wasn’t communicated to customers or the media at the time.
  2. There was some confusion in May about what the cause was. It was attributed variously to a software upgrade or retailers not doing their bit properly.
  3. Whatever the issue was in May, it was broken in the media in September as an issue that was only affecting recent transactions.

To me, this suggests that there was a problem with the software in May and a decision was taken to roll back that software change.

  • Where was the “detective” control of Software Testing in May?
  • If the software was tested, what “Crappy Path” scenarios were missed from the test pack or test environment that exposed BOI customes (and potentially customers of the other 7 banks who are part of Laser) to this double dipping?
  • If BOI were confident that it was Retailers not following processes, why did they not design effective preventative controls or automated detective controls to find these types of error and automatically correct them before they became front page news?

Unfortunately, if the Bank’s timeline and version of events are take at face value, the September version of the software didn’t actually fix the bug or implement any form of effective control to prevent customers being overcharged.

  • What is the scenario that exists that eluded Bank of Ireland staff for 4 months?
  • If they have identified all the scenarios… was the software adequately tested and is their test enviroment a close enough model of reality that they get “Ferrari” performance on the track rather than “Honda” performance?

However, BOI’s response to this issue would seem to suggest an additional level of contributory cause which is probably more far reaching than a failure to test software or properly understand how the Laser systems are used and abused in “the wild” and ensure adequate controls are in place to manage and mitigate risks.

A very significant piece of information about this entire situation is inconsistent for me. Bank of Ireland has stated that this problem arose over the past weekend and was identified by staff immediately. That sounds like a very robust control framework. However it is inconsistent with the fact that the issue was raised with the Bank in May by at least one customer, who wrote about it in a very popular and prominent Irish blog. At that time I also wrote to the Bank about this issue asking a series of very specific questions (incidentally, they were based on the type of questions I used to ask in my previous job when an issue was brought to our attention in a Compliance context).

I was asked today if Simon’s case was possibly a once off. My response was to the effect that these are automated processes. If it happens once, one must assume that it has happened more than once.

In statistical theory there is a forumla called Poisson’s Rule. Simply put, if you select a record at random from a random sample of your data and you find an error in it then you have a 95% probability that there will be other errors. Prudence would suggest that a larger sample be taken and further study be done before dismissing that error as a “once off”, particularly in automated structured processes. I believe that Simon’s case was simply that random selection falling in my lap and into the lap of the bank.

Ultimately,  I can only feel now that Simon and I were fobbed off with a bland line. Perhaps it was a holding position while the Bank figured out what was going onand did further analysis and sampling of their data to get a handle on the size of the problem. However, if that was the case I would have expected the news reports to day to have talked about an “intermittent issue which has been occurring since May of this year”, not a convenient and fortuitous “recent days”.

Unfortunately this has the hallmark of a culture which calls on staff to protect the Bank and to deny the existence of a problem until the evidence is categorically staring them in the face. It is precisely this kind of culture which blinkers organisations to the true impact of information quality risks. It is precisely this kind of culture which was apparent from the positions taken by Irish banks (BOI included) in the run up to the Government Bank Guarantee Scheme and which continues to hover in the air as we move to the NAMA bailout.

Tthis kind of culture is an anathema to transparent and reliable managment of quality and risk.


We will probably never know exactly what the real root cause of the Bank of Ireland double dipping fiasco is. The Bank admitted today in the Irish Times that they were not sure what the cause was.

Given that they don’t know what the cause was and there are differences of record as to when this issue first raised its head between the Bank and its own customers, it is clear that there are still further questions to ask and have answered as to the response of Bank of Ireland to this issue. In my view it has been a clear demonstration of “mushroom management” of risk and information quality.

Ultimately, I can only hope that other banks involved in Laser learn from BOI’s handling of this issue which, to my mind, has been poor. What is needed is:

  • A clear and transparent definition of the process by which a laser transaction goes from your fingers on the PIN number pad to your bank account. This should not be technical but should be simple, business process based, ideally using only lines and boxes to explain the process in lay-person’s terms.
  • This can then form the basis in Banks and audit functions for defining the “Happy Path” and “Crappy Path” scenarios as well as explaining to all actors involved what the impact of their contribution is to the end result (a customer who can pay their mortgage after having done their shopping for example)
  • Increased transparency and responsiveness on the part of the banks to reports of customer over charging. Other industries (and I think of telecommunication here) have significant statutory penalties where it is shown that there is systemic overcharging of customers. In Telco the fine is up to €5000 per incident and a corporate criminal conviction (and a resulting loss in government tendering opportunities). I would suggest that similar levels of penalties should be levied at the banks so that there is more than an “inconvenience cost” of refunds but an “opportunity cost” of screwing up.
  • A change in culture is needed away towards ensuring the customer is protected from risk rather than the bank. I am perfectly certain that individual managers and staff in the banks in question do their best to protect the customer from risk, but a fundamental change in culture is required to turn those people from heroes in the dark hours to simply good role models of “how we do things here”.

There is a lot to be learned by all from this incident.

#BGas- Bord Gais loses 75000 customer records

The Bord Gais story

First off, I am a Bord Gais (Irish Gas Board, now an electricity supplier) customer. I switched to them earlier this year to save money. I provided personal details about myself and my wife along with details of the bank  account our bills get paid out of. So, my wife and I are almost certainly included in the 75000 people who have recently heard about how four laptops were stolen from the Bord Gais HQ two weeks ago, one of which had our personal data on it in an unencrypted form.

Oh… we are assured it was password protected. Forgive me if I don’t feel the love about that assurance. Passwords were made to be broken, and in my experience they are often not very strong. (“P@ssword”).

Everything reported in the media thus far suggests to me that this incident stems from yet another chronic failure to recognise the value of the “Information Asset” and treat it with the care and respect that it deserves.

What do we know?

  • The laptops were stolen in a burglary.

Unless the burglars had ample time to wander around the headquarters of a blue chip company rifling presses looking for laptops, it would seem to me that the laptops were left on desks unsecured.  A basic practice for the physical security of laptops is to either lock them  away or take them home with you and secure them there. Leaving them sitting on your desk invites larceny.

  • This laptop ‘fell through the cracks’ for installing encryption software

OK. Mistakes can happen. However a simple check for the existence of encryption software is an obvious preventative control that could have prevented the unencrypted laptop from being put out into use.  Of course, just because there is encryption software on a laptop doesn’t mean that the user will actually encrypt their files in all cases.

Reliance on policy and technology without ensuring control, culture and people changes are implemented as well (such as changing work practices or giving the lowest techie the right to tell the CEO to bugger off if he wants his laptop before it is encrypted) invites a false and unwarranted sense of security.

Also, I am aware of one large company which has rolled out encryption on laptops, but only to senior management and primarily to protect documents relating to management strategy. The fact that the proletariat knowledge worker with a laptop can have spreadsheets a-plenty chock full  of personal data doesn’t seem to have registered. They are protecting the wrong asset.

  • The file was password protected

OK. Two points here… is it the file or the operating system? How secure is the password? If the password is on the file might the password be stored in a text file on the laptop, or in an email, or on a post-it note stuck to the lid?

Even if the spreadsheet (and inevitably it will be a spreadsheet) is password protected, there are a number of free utilitites for recovering passwords on Microsoft office documents. It took me all of 15 seconds to find some on Google.

MS Access is a little trickier, but where there is a will (and a basic knowledge of Access) there is a way.

When it comes to securing personal data, passwords should be seen as the last (and weakest) line of defence.  Passwords, like promises, are all to easy to break.

  • The break in happened 2 weeks ago

So, what we know from the media is that the thieves (or the people who eventually wound up with the laptops) have had 2 weeks to do the google searches I’ve done to find the tools necessaray to crack a password on a file.

they’ve had two weeks to go to market with their asset to see what price they can get. They’ve had two weeks to start applying for loans or credit cards.

What I know from the media now is that Bord Gais is more concerned with the Regulator and the Data Protection Commissioner than they are with their customers.

What I don’t yet know from the media

  • What the fricking hell was my data doing on a laptop?

OK,  so I’ll accept that there can be reasons for data to be taken onto laptops or local PCs from time to time (migrations, data profiling, reporting, remediation of compliance issues etc.).

But ALL the records and ALL the fields in those records? That’s just ridiculous.

And was that purpose consistent with the purposes for which I provided the data in the first place?

Having ALL the eggs in one unsecured basket invites loss and security breaches.

  • Was the laptop securely stored or locked in any physical way?

I have to assume no on this one, but who knows… the theives may just have been very lucky that the first four presses they broke open happened to have laptops in them.

No amount of software security or business practice will prevent a theft if the actual physical security of the asset is not assured. The asset in this case isn’t the laptop (value no more than €600),  but the data is worht a whole lot more.

75,0000 records at around €2.00 a record is an easy€150,000.

  • Will Bord Gais compensate customers who suffer loss or damage through their negligence?

OOOh. Negligence is a strong word. But leaving unencrypted, unsecured data (yes it is password protected but that’s not much comfort) lying around is negligent. If I suffer loss or injury (such as being liable for a debt I didn’t incur or having my credit rating trashed, or having my identity stolen) will Bord Gais compensate me (without me having to sue them first)?Continue reading

Software Quality, Information Quality, and Customer Service

Cripes. It’s been a month since I last posted here. Time flies when you are helping your boss figure out how to divide your work up before you leave the company in 3 weeks. I’ve also been very busy with my work in the International Association for Information and Data Quality – lots of interesting things happening there, including the Blog Carnival for Data Quality which I’ll be hosting come Monday!

One of the things I do in the IAIDQ is moderate and manage the IQTrainwrecks.com website. It is a resource site for people which captures real world stories of how poor quality information impacts on people, companies, and even economies.

Earlier this week I posted a case that was flagged to me by the nice people over at Tuppenceworth.ie concerning double-charging on customer accounts arising from a software bug. Details of that story can be found on IQTrainwrecks and on Tuppenceworth. I’d advise you to read either of those posts as they provide the context necessary for what follows here.Continue reading

The Customer perspective on Information Quality

A short post today. I promise.

Yesterday’s Dilbert made me laugh. As a telco guy I’m familiar with the lengths my industry will go to to create complicated contracts that can ‘obscure’ the total cost of a phone package. It was nice to see that getting a character all to itself in Dilbert.

But what made me laugh most of all was the number of root causes of Information Quality problems which are mentioned in just two boxes of this strip:


Dilbert (c) Scott Adams, 19th April 2009

  1. Unlabelled strings of code – this is DATA, not INFORMATION because it lacks CONTEXT to make it ACTIONABLE
  2. Web forms or applications not designed to make sense with the information requested (fields too short for the code).
  3. Letters looking like numbers (and vice versa).

If your customer can’t complete a rebate process due to any of the above issues (or similar), then your information quality focus is wrong (or non-existent) and your customers will go elsewhere eventually.

Wooing price sensitive customers (and aren’t we all these days?) with rebates or discounts but then having processes which fail to successfully operate due to poor quality planning for quality information and quality outcomes means that any competitor who comes close to you on price but can make the customer experience easier and more transparent is likely to win business from you.

Begin with the end in mind. Isn’t the end you want a happy customer who will buy again from your company (and maybe refer their friends to you)?

Certified Information Quality Professional

Recent shenanigans around the world have highlighted the importance of good quality information. Over at idqcert.iaidq.org I’ve written a mid-sized post explaining why I am a passionate supporter of the IAIDQ’s Certified Information Quality Practitioner certification.

Basically, there is a need for people who are managing information quality challenges to have a clear benchmark that sets them and their profession apart from the ‘IT’ misnomer. A clear code of ethics for the profession (a part of the certification as I understand iit) is also important. My reading of the situation, particularly in at least one Irish financial institution, is that people were more concerned with presenting the answer that was wanted to a question rather than the answer that was needed and there appears to have been some ‘massaging’ of figures to present a less than accurate view of things – resulting in investors making decisions based on incomplete or inaccurate information.

Hopefully the CIQP certification will help raise standards and the awareness of the standards that should be required for people working with information in the information age.

Final post and update on IBTS issues

OK. This is (hopefully) my final post on the IBTS issues. I may post their response to my queries about why I received a letter and why my data was in New York. I may not. So here we go..

First off, courtesy of a source who enquired about the investigation, the Data Protection Commissioner has finished their investigation and the IBTS seems to have done everything as correct as they could, in the eyes of the DPC with regard to managing risk and tending to the security of the data. The issue of why the data was not anonymised seems to be dealt with on the grounds that the fields with personal data could not be isolated in the log files. The DPC finding was that the data provided was not excessive in the circumstances.

[Update: Here’s a link to the Data Protection Commissioner’s report. ]

This suggests to me that the log files effectively amounted to long strings of text which would have needed to be parsed to extract given name/family name/telephone number/address details, or else the fields in the log tables are named strangely and unintuitively (not as uncommon as you might think) and the IBTS does not have a mapping of the fields to the data that they contain.

In either case, parsing software is not that expensive (in the grand scheme of things) and a wide array of data quality tools provide very powerful parsing capabilities at moderate costs. I think of Informatica’s Data Quality Workbench (a product originally developed in Ireland), Trillium Software’s offerings or the nice tools from Datanomic.

Many of these tools (or others from similar vendors) can also help identify the type of data in fields so that organisations can identify what information they have where in their systems. “Ah, field x_system_operator_label actually has names in it!… now what?”.

If the log files effectively contained totally unintelligible data, one would need to ask what the value of it for testing would be, unless the project involved the parsing of this data in some way to make it ‘useable’? As such, one must assume that there was some inherent structure/pattern to the data that information quality tools would be able to interpret.

Given that according to the DPC the NYBC were selected after a public tender process to provide a data extraction tool this would suggest that there was some structure to the data that could be interpreted. It also (for me) raises the question as to whether any data had been extracted in a structured format from the log files?

Also the “the data is secure because we couldn’t figure out where it was in the file so no-one else will” defence is not the strongest plank to stand on. Using any of the tools described above (or similar ones that exist in the open source space, or can be assembled from tools such as Python or TCL/TK or put together in JAVA) it would be possible to parse out key data from a string of text without a lot of ‘technical’ expertise (Ok, if you are ‘home rolling’ a solution using TCL or Python you’d need to be up to speed on techie things, but not that much). Some context data might be needed (such as a list of possible firstnames and a list of lastnames, but that type of data is relatively easy to put together. Of course, it would need to be considered worth the effort and the laptop itself was probably worth more than irish data would be to a NYC criminal.

The response from the DPC that I’ve seen doesn’t address the question of whether NYBC failed to act in a manner consistent with their duty of care by letting the data out of a controlled environment (it looks like there was a near blind reliance on the security of the encryption). However, that is more a fault of the NYBC than the IBTS… I suspect more attention will be paid to physical control of data issues in future. While the EU model contract arrangements regarding encryption are all well and good, sometimes it serves to exceed the minimum standards set.

The other part of this post relates to the letter template that Fitz kindly offered to put together for visitors here. Fitz lives over at http://tugofwar.spaces.live.com if anyone is interested. I’ve gussied up the text he posted elsewhere on this site into a word doc for download ==> Template Letter.

Fitz invites people to take this letter as a starting point and edit it as they see fit. My suggestion is to edit it to reflect an accurate statement of your situation. For example… if you haven’t received a letter from the IBTS then just jump to the end and request a copy of your personal data from the IBTS (it will cost you a few quid to get it), if you haven’t phoned their help-line don’t mention it in the letter etc…. keep it real to you rather than looking like a totally formulaic letter.

On a lighter note, a friend of mine has received multiple letters from the Road Safety Authority telling him he’s missed his driving test and will now forfeit his fee. Thing is, he passed his test three years ago. Which begs the question (apart from the question of why they are sending him letters now)… why the RSA still has his application details given that data should only be retained for as long as it is required for the stated purpose for which it was collected? And why have the RSA failed to maintain the information accurately (it is wrong in at least one significant way).

IBTS… returning to the scene of the crime

Some days I wake up feeling like Lt. Columbo. I bound out of bed assured in myself that, throughout the day I’ll be niggled by, or rather niggle others with, ‘just one more question’.

Today was not one of those days. But you’d be surprised what can happen while going about the morning ablutions. “Over 171000 (174618 in total) records sent to New York. Sheesh. That’s a lot. Particularly for a sub-set of the database reflecting records that were updated between 2nd July 2007 and 11th October 2007. That’s a lot of people giving blood or having blood tests, particularly during a short period. The statistics for blood donation in Ireland must be phenomenal. I’m surprised we can drag our anaemic carcasses from the leaba and do anything; thank god for steak sandwiches, breakfast rolls and pints of Guinness!”, I hummed to myself as I scrubbed the dentation and hacked the night’s stubble off the otherwise babysoft and unblemished chin (apologies – read Twenty Major’s book from cover to cover yesterday and the rich prose rubbed off on me).

“I wonder where I’d get some stats for blood donation in Ireland. If only there was some form of Service or agency that managed these things. Oh.. hang on…, what’s that Internet? Silly me.”

So I took a look at the IBTS annual report for 2006 to see if there was any evidence of back slapping and awards for our doubtlessly Olympian donation efforts.

According to the the IBTS, “Only 4% of our population are regular donors” (source: Chairperson’s statement on page 3 of the report). Assuming the population in 2006 (pre census data publication) was around 4.5 million (including children), this would suggest a maximum regular donor pool of 180,000. If we take the CSO data breaking out population by age, and make a crude guess on the % of 15-24 year olds that are over 18 (we’ll assume 60%) then the pool shrinks further… to around 3.1 million, giving a regular donor pool of 124000 approx.

Hmm… that’s less than the number of records sent as test data to New York based on a sub-set of the database. But my estimations could be wrong.

The IBTS Annual Report for 2006 tells us (on page 13) that

The average age of the donors who gave blood
in 2006 was 38 years and 43,678 or 46% of our
donors were between the ages of 18 and 35

OK. So let’s stop piddling around with assumptions based on the 4% of population hypothesis. Here’s a simpler sum to work out… If X = 46% of Y, calculate Y.

(43678/46)X100 = 94952 people giving blood in total in 2006. Oh. That’s even less than the other number. And that’s for a full year. Not a sample date range. That is <56% of the figure quoted by the IBTS. Of course, this may be the number of unique people donating rather than a count of individual instances of donation… if people donated more than once the figure could be higher.

The explanation may also lie with the fact that transaction data was included in the extract given to the NYBC (and record of a donation could be a transaction). As a result there may be more than one row of data for each person who had their data sent to New York (unless in 2007 there was a magical doubling of the numbers of people giving blood).

According to the IBTS press release:

The transaction files are generated when any modification is made to any record in Progesa and the relevant period was 2nd July 2007 to 11th October 2007 when 171,324 donor records and 3,294 patient blood group records were updated.

(the emphasis is mine).

The key element of that sentence is “any modification is made to any record”. Any change. At all. So, the question I would pose now is what modifications are made to records in Progresa? Are, for example, records of SMS messages sent to the donor pool kept associated with donor records? Are, for example, records of mailings sent to donors kept associated? Is an audit trail of changes to personal data kept? If so, why and for how long? (Data can only be kept for as long as it is needed). Who has access rights to modify records in the Progresa system? Does any access of personal data create a log record? I know that the act of donating blood is not the primary trigger here… apart from anything else, the numbers just don’t add up.

It would also suggest that the data was sent in a ‘flat file’ structure with personal data repeated in the file for each row of transaction data.

How many distinct person records were sent to NYBC in New York? Was it

  • A defined subset of the donors on the Progresa system who have been ‘double counted in the headlines due to transaction records being included in the file? ….or
  • All donors?
  • Something in between?

If the IBTS can’t answer that, perhaps they might be able to provide information on the average number of transactions logged per unique identified person in their database during the period July to October 2007?

Of course, this brings the question arc back to the simplest question of all… while production transaction records might have been required, why were ‘live’ personal details required for this software development project and why was anonymised or ‘defused’ personal data not used?

To conclude…
Poor quality information may have leaked out of the IBTS as regards the total numbers of people affected by this data breach. The volume of records they claim to have sent cannot (at least by me) be reconciled with the statistics for blood donations. They are not even close.

The happy path news here is that the total number of people could be a lot less. If we assume ‘double dipping’ as a result of more than one modification of a donor record, then the worst case scenario is that almost their entire ‘active’ donor list has been lost. The best case scenario is that a subset of that list has gone walkies. It really does boil down to how many rows of transaction information were included alongside each personal record.

However, it is clear that, despite how it may have been spun in the media, the persons affected by this are NOT necessarily confined to the pool of people who may have donated blood or had blood tests peformed between July 2007 and October 2007. Any modification to data about you in the Progresa System would have created a transaction record. We have no information on what these modifications might entail or how many modifications might have occured, on average, per person during that period.

In that context the maximum pool of people potentially affected becomes anyone who has given blood or had blood tests and might have a record on the Progressa system.

That is the crappy path scenario.

Reality is probably somewhere in between.

But, in the final analysis, it should be clear that real personal data should never have been used and providing such data to NYBC was most likely in breach of the IBTS’s own data protection policy.

So what did the IBTSB do right?

In the interests of a bit of balance, and prompted by some considered comment by Owen O’Connor on Simon’s post over on Tuppenceworth, I thought it might be worth focussing for a moment on what the IBTSB did right.

  1. They had a plan that recognised data security as a key concern.
  2. They specified contract terms to deal with how the data was to be handled. (these terms may have been breached by the data going on an unexpected tour of New York)
  3. They made use of encryption to protect the data in transit (there is no guarantee however that the data was in an encrypted state at all times)
  4. They notified promptly and put their hands up rather than ignoring the problem and hoping it would go away. That alone is to be commended.

So they planned relatively well and responded quickly when shit hit the fan. The big unknown in all of this is whether the data has been compromised. If we assume happy path, then the individual in an organisation which had a contractual obligation to protect the security of the data but took it home anyway kept the data encrypted on the laptop. This may indeed be the case. I

t could also be the case that this person didn’t appreciate the obligations owed and precautions required and, apart from removing the data from a controlled and securable environment, had decrypted the data to have a poke around at it. That is the crappy path.

Ultimately it is a roll of the dice as to which you put your trust in.

In previous posts I have asked why production data was being used for a test event and why it had not been anonymised or tweaked to reduce its ability to identify real individuals. In his comment over on Tuppenceworth, Owen O’Connor contends that

the data being examined was to do with the actual usage and operation of the IBTS system

If the data that was being examined was log files for database transactions then one might query (no pun intended) why personal identifying data was included. If it was unavoidable but to send sample records (perhaps for replication of transaction events?) then this might actually be in accordance with the IBTSB’s data protection policy. But if the specifics of names etc. were not required for the testing (ie if it was purely transactional processing that was being assesed and not, for example, the operation of parsing or matching algorithms) then they should have and could have been mangled to make them anonymous with out affecting the validity of any testing that was being done.

If a sound reason for using real data exists that is plausible and warranted the level of risk involved then (having conducted similar testing activities myself during my career) I’d be happy that the IBTSB had done pretty much everything they could reasonably have been asked to do to ensure security of the data. The only other option I would possibly have suggested would be remote access to data held on a server in Ireland which would have certainly meant that no data would have been on a laptop in New York (but latency on broadband connections etc. might have mitigated against accurate test results perhaps).

In the Dail, the IBTSB has come in for some stick for their sloppy handling. Owen O’Connor is correct however – the handling of the spin has been quite good and most of the risk planning was what would be expected. If anyone is guilty of sloppy handling it is the NYBC who acted in breach of their agreement (most likely) by letting the data out of the controlled environment of their offices.

So, to be clear, I feel for the project manager and team in the IBTSB who are in the middle of what is doubtless a difficult situation. But for the grace of god (and a sense of extreme paranoia in the planning stages of developer test events) go I. The response was correct. Get it out in the open and bring in the Data Protection commissioner as soon as possible. The planning was at least risk-aware. They learned from Nixon (it’s the cover up that gets you)

However, if there was not a compelling reason for real data about real people being used in the testing that could not have been addressed with either more time or mor money then I would still contend that the use of the production data was ill-advised and in breach of the IBTSB’s own policies.

More thoughts on the IBTS data breach

One of the joys of having occasional bouts of insomnia is that you can spend hours in the dead of night pondering what might have happened in a particular scenario based on your experience and the experience of others.

For example, the IBTS has rushed to assure us that the data that was sent to New York was encrypted to 256bit-AES standard. To a non-technical person that sounds impressive. To a technical person, that sounds slightly impressive.

However, a file containing 171000+ records could be somewhat large, depending on how many fields of data it contained and whether that data contained long ‘free text’ fields etc. When data is extracted from database it is usually dumped to a text file format which has delimiters to identify the fields such as commas or tab characters or defined field widths etc.

When a file is particularly large, it is often compressed before being put on a disc for transfer – a bit like how we all try to compress our clothes in our suitcase when trying to get just one bag on Aer Lingus or Ryanair flights. One of the most common software tools used (in the microsoft windows environment) is called WinZip. It compresses files but can also encrypt the archive file so that a password is required to open it. When the file needs to be used, it can be extracted from the archive, so long as you have the password for the compressed file. winzip encryption screenshot.
So, it would not be entirely untrue for the IBTS to say that they had encrypted the data before sending it and it was in an encrypted state on the laptop if all they had done was compressed the file using Winzip and ticked the boxes to apply encryption. And as long as the password wasn’t something obvious or easily guessed (like “secret” or “passw0rd” or “bloodbank”) the data in the compressed file would be relatively secure behind the encryption.

However, for the data to be used for anything it would need to be uncompressed and would sit, naked and unsecure, on the laptop to be prodded and poked by the application developers as they went about their business. Where this to be the case then, much like the fabled emperor, the IBTS’s story has no clothes. Unencrypted data would have been on the laptop when it was stolen. Your unencrypted, non-anonymised data could have been on the laptop when it was stolen.

The other scenario is that the actual file itself was encrypted using appropriate software. There are many tools in the market to do this, some free, some not so free. In this scenario, the actual file is encrypted and is not necessarily compressed. To access the file one would need the appropriate ‘key’, either a password or a keycode saved to a memory stick or similar that would let the encryption software know you were the right person to open the file.

However, once you have the key you can unencrypt the file and save an unencrypted copy. If the file was being worked on for development purposes it is possible that an unencrypted copy might have been made. This may have happened contrary to policies and agreements because, sometimes, people try to take shortcuts to get to a goal and do silly things. In that scenario, personal data relating to Irish Blood donors could have wound up in an unencrypted state on a laptop that was stolen in New York.

[Update**] Having discussed this over the course of the morning with a knowledgable academic who used to run his own software development company, it seems pretty much inevitable that the data was actually in an unencrypted state on the laptop, unless there was an unusual level of diligence on the part of the New York Blood Clinic regarding the handling of data by developers when not in the office.

The programmer takes data home of an evening/weekend to work on some code without distractions or to beat a deadline. To use the file he/she would need to have unencrypted it (unless the software they were testing could access encrypted files… in which case does the development version have ‘hardened’ security itself?). If the file was unencrypted to be worked on at home, it is not beyond possiblity that the file was left unencrypted on the laptop at the time it was stolen.

All of which brings me back to a point I made yesterday….

Why was un-anonymised production data being used for a development/testing activity in contravention to the IBTS’s stated Data Protection policy, Privacy statement and Donor Charter and in breach of section 2 of the Data Protection Act?

If the data had been fake, the issue of encryption or non-encryption would not be an issue. Fake is fake, and while the theft would be embarrassing it would not have constituted a breach of the Data Protection Act. I notice from Tuppenceworth.ie that the IBTSB were not quick to respond to Simon’s innocent enquiry about why dummy data wasn’t used.