SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 2 OCTOBER 2005
FOR YEARS it was a day I hoped would come. On waking, the excitement ejected me from the bed like a nine year old on Christmas morning. The speed at which I had breakfast was an olympian 3mins 59.6 secs. The sprint from the kitchen to the phone was unmeasurable.
"Hello, is that the ******* detective agency in London?"
"Yes it is. This is ***** speaking, what can I do for you".
"Hello *****. I'm researching a story and am finding it difficult to track down someone who was living in the UK".
"Sure, we provide a reliable tracing service. Do you have any information at all on the person?"
"Er, not really. I believe he's deceased. All I have is his name and that of his last known employer".
"Well that might be enough. Give me his name. I'll do a preliminary search and we'll take it from there".
"Okay great. His name is ****** **********. Will this cost much, do you think".
"Em, well the initial search is free. But more detailed information, if we get it, will be around Stg200 including vat".
"Oh right. Would that include the possibility of looking up his social security number on the UK national database?"
"Would that be possible?"
"No! I'm afraid we don't can't do that. We don't have access to that information. Why do you want to do that"?
"Sorry, I just thought that's what private detective's were able to do. That you had... er... shall we say... contacts in those places. Have I been watching too many movies"?
"Maybe you have, but this agency doesn't do that. What do you want to do?"
"Thanks for your help, but I'll leave it for now. Bye."
What a let down.
Maybe I was just unfortunate to get the wrong private detective. Maybe he was being cagey, who knows. For many years, I'd heard rumours and half-stories about how it was possible to get access to classified information. If you knew who to ask and were prepared to pay for it.
Nobody is ever going to admit to knowing about it. It's secretive and loose talk means that it wouldn't stay that way for long.
Now if you're thinking I have watched too many movies or am on some low-fares flight of fancy, then wrap your thoughts around this, from last week's Sunday Times: "The Irish government has launched an inquiry into why a large number of civil servants accessed state files on Dolores McNamara following her Euro115m lottery win.
"Officials at the Department of Social and Family Affairs have discovered there were up to 150 hits on McNamara's welfare files after she scooped the EuroMillions prize."
And how did this see the light of day? When specific details of Ms McNamara's social welfare claims were published, the head-scratching started on how that information became public. Now it's an enquiry.
Of course it's possible that such information about Ms McNamara could have come through other sources, but it can't be ruled out that data protection laws were circumvented and her privacy rights breached. Will we ever find out?
The building of any kind of database is easy enough these days. Computing power sees to that. Securing a database, however, is another matter entirely.
In the US, hardly a week goes passes without a major database breach. In one of the latest, the Air Force had to notify more than 33,000 air crew that their personal details might have been exposed following a breach.
Last year allegations swirled online concerning an Irish telephone call centre operation. Unsubstantiated rumours and tittle-tattle floated about suggesting low-paid employees were willing to sell information (numbers called etc) for the right price.
Now the European Union, with Ireland leading the charge, wants to implement the retention and storing of all telecommunications data on national databases. That's a list of who we phone, who we email and what websites we visit.
Because of the huge costs involved to the telephone companies and internet service providers, the EU is proposing that it be paid for with public money. You and I will be paying to have revealing details of our personal and private life gathered in one place. A honey pot with a questionable ability to keep out prying eyes, private or otherwise.
Who watches the watchers?