The Other I

November 20, 2007

How big is 25 million?

Filed under: Survival Strategies,The English,Uncategorized — theotheri @ 9:07 pm

I was introduced to the Spanish Guardia on the day we moved into our house in an elegant little fishing village on the Mediterranean coast in 1986.  It was a hot February morning and the young men were moving everything we’d packed up from our lives in New York – furniture, clothes, pots, pans, computers, and thousands of books from our personal academic library – from the truck into the house, when the police vehicle wended its way up the hill.

Two Guardia officers got out.  The movers all disappeared into the back of the moving van, and quite suddenly, did speak a word of Spanish.  One officer came to the door, removed his hat and greeeted me – Buenas dias, Senora.  Peter speaks French, so it was left to me and my rusty Spanish learned in high school to stumble on.  What emerged was that the officers wanted to come into our house and open the boxes that were piling up there. 

I was well aware that in the U.S. or England, the police do not have the right to roll up and insist on coming into your house to search without a warrant.  They don’t have that right in Spain either, but when you are a foreigner and a police force with a ruthless reputation forged under the rule of the dictator Franco arrives, one is not inclined to choose a moment like this to make a point of law.  I invited them in.

The senior officer ripped open two of the boxes.  By chance, both of them were filled with books.  “Ah, libros!” he spat.  Then tipped his hat, and with many Gracias, Senora, departed.  We learned later that they were looking for a load of contraband machinery.  I might have resented their high-handedness but I’ve never wished in restrospect that I’d stood up to them.  I knew they had too much power, and even if we had done nothing wrong, they could cause us an immense amount of trouble for a very long time.  

I remembered this incident today when news broke that four weeks ago the HMRC (the treasury and tax-collection department in Britain) sent in unsecured mail two computer discs containing the names, social security numbers, addresses, birth dates, and bank details of 25 million UK citizens.  (If you wonder if 25 million is a large number, it might put it in perspective to know that it represents more than 4 out of every 10 people living in this country.)  The discs have been lost, and despite a furious search, have not been found.

The government has no choice but to admit this is a huge failure to protect its citizens from serious potential harm, especially identity theft.  But what is coming out is a story of systemic failure.  This is by no means the first security failure, and stories of incompetence on a huge scale are terrifying. 

This incompetence is why I was willing, at fairly substantial personal cost, to pay a UK accountant to stand between me and the HMRC should they ever decide to examine my tax liability. 

I fear arrogant incompetence far more than I fear the rule of law.

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