The UK government has had a run of terrible luck lately when it comes to keeping confidential data confidential. It’s not a matter of leaks, and really it could and probably does happen to a lot of people and a lot of organizations. The new, convenient ways to handle electronic files make it possible for people who manipulate sensitive data to accidentally carry enormous amounts of material out of the office in a pocket or bag.
It seems that there has recently been a spate of data sticks, CDs, and even whole laptops full of classified secrets falling through the fingers of government officials. Such losses usually lead to public apologies and sometimes even to resignations.
The British are big on apologizing, at least as interested in apologies as they are in complaints and that’s going some. One of the nice things about having British citizenship is that now I feel that I have as much right to complain as anybody else. Not that I have much to complain about, but it’s nice to know that I’m allowed to.
After ten years here, I’m no longer surprised that when officialdom makes an error, the first thing most people here want is to know who will apologize. The second thing they talk about is who might or should resign. Asking what will be done to fix the problem seems to come only third. Until the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe, I felt that the biggest difference between the UK and the US was that when things go wrong in the US, the first thing people do is try to fix the problem. Here, the apology seems to be the most important thing.
Apologies for delayed trains are legendary and might well be the most creative of all apologies, the truly famous ones involving “leaves on the line” and “the wrong kind of snow”. People use those phrases now in situations far removed from train travel or winter weather; either can now be used to mean any feeble excuse. (“Why did the cafeteria close early?” “Oh, I don’t know. Probably leaves on the line.”)
But these aren’t as silly as they seem at first glance. When Victorians constructed the railway lines they cut the trees back so that branches didn’t overhang the tracks. Now that we’re too green to go around cutting trees willy-nilly, now that the trees have had a century or so to grow up and over the rails, leaves on the track create a major problem. A heavy train travelling at speed over a plastering of damp leaves turns those leaves instantly to carbon, a lubricant that can send the wheels zipping right off the rails—not good. So trains have to go slowly after rainstorms have brought down lots of leaves. And it turns out that light, powdery snow gets into electrical equipment and causes problems more so than heavy, wet snow, and it also can’t be as effectively cleared by snow plows. It turns out there truly are in effect right and wrong kinds of snow if you’re running modern British railroads.
Train operators make so many apologies, in fact, that these have to be automated. Recorded voices speak sentences made up of separate phrases, concatenated to produce the message. You may hear, probably at about 12:40, that “the train now approaching platform…2…is the…12:19 …Southwest Trains…service to…London Waterloo. … We apologize for the late running of this service.” It’s not clear that passengers are particularly mollified by the sincerity of a pre-recorded apology.
Today it is my turn to apologize. I’ve been away from home for a few days, visiting historic sites in and near Dover—where, by the way, I saw a sign on a vending machine reading “This machine is out of order. The closest facility is in the Secret Wartime Tunnels. We apologize for any inconvenience caused”—odd, as one doesn’t ordinarily think of trotting down to the Secret Wartime Tunnels to buy from vending machines. Did I mention that the products in question were being sold in the women’s room?
So even though I haven’t lost CDs containing the personal details of everyone in the UK whose children receive government benefits, nor did I misplace a hard drive carrying a database of information on three million learner drivers (that is, people who have applied for learners’ permits), nor did I leave a laptop full of top secret info on military movements, exercises, and weapons locations on a seat in a pub, nor did I drop a data stick containing passwords to government computers in a parking lot/car park—all of which really have happened—I still feel the need.
I apologize for my absence from this blog. Our little vacation to Dover kept me from posting anything new for over a week. I apologize for any inconvenience caused. Normal service will be resumed shortly.