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False Positives and the Database State

There is, in the UK (as elsewhere) a prevailing climate of paranoia about adults interacting with children.

In an attempt to be seen to Do Something, in the wake of a particularly gruesome multiple murder, the British government established a new agency, the Independent Safeguarding Authority, "to help prevent unsuitable people from working with children and vulnerable adults." Working with the Criminal Records Bureau, the ISA "will assess every person who wants to work or volunteer with vulnerable people. Potential employees and volunteers will need to apply to register with the ISA." For a fee of £64 you apply to the ISA for a background check. They then certify that you're not an evil paedophile and a threat to society, and issue you with a piece of paper that says you're allowed to interact with children in a specific role. Want multiple roles — driving kids to school in your taxi, and teaching them karate in the evening? — get multiple certificates.

Authors need to get a certificate before they can visit schools to deliver readings. MPs need a background check, it seems, before they can visit schools. (Usually the employer is responsible for getting the certificate; hilarity ensues when it transpires that MPs aren't actually employed by Parliament ...)

As you can imagine, the authors are upset. As Philip Pullman puts it, "It seems to be fuelled by the same combination of prurience, sexual fear and cold political calculation," the author of the bestselling His Dark Materials trilogy said today. "When you go into a school as an author or an illustrator you talk to a class at a time or else to the whole school. How on earth — how on earth — how in the world is anybody going to rape or assault a child in those circumstances? It's preposterous."

He's completely right, in my opinion. But the situation is worse than he imagines. I'm not going to apply for a CRB check &mdash ever. And not because I'm a criminal. (My sum total of negative interaction with the law over the past 44 years has amounted to two speeding tickets, most recently six years ago.)

Nor am I outraged at the privacy thing. (I'm used to the idea that we live in a panopticon.)

What I'm worried about is the problem of false positives.

Even the simplest of databases have been found to contain error rates of 10%. (The HMRC database in this study contains merely first, second and surname, title, sex, data of birth, address and National Insurance number — nevertheless 10% of the records contain errors.) Other agencies are even more prone to mistakes. For example: my wife recently discovered that our GP's medical records showed her as having been born outside the UK rather than in an NHS hospital in Manchester. We don't know why that error's in the system, and we've got the birth certificate and witnesses to prove that it is an error, but imagine the fun that might ensue if the control freaks in Whitehall decided to enforce record sharing between the NHS and the Immigration Agency ...! (Hopefully they're not that stupid, but who can tell?)

The point is, if 10% of government database records contain an error, than the probability of a sweep of databases coming up with an error rises as you consult more sources. And there are a whole bundle of wonderful ways for errors to show up. If your name and date of birth are the same as someone with heavy criminal record, a CRB check could label you as a bad guy. If your social security number is one digit transposition away from $BAD_GUY, see above. If the previous owner of your house was a child abuser, see above. If your street address is one letter/digit away from a street address occupied by a criminal and some bored clerk mis-typed it, you can end up being conflated with somebody else. And the more sources the CRB checks, the higher the probability of a false positive result — that is, of them obtaining a positive result (subject is a criminal) when in fact the subject is a negative.

This is not a hypothetical worry. As of last November, the CRB had falsely identified more than 12,000 people as criminals, according to the Home Office. (Raw parliamentary answer here.) These are the disputes that were upheld, that is, ones where the falsely mis-identified were able to convince the CRB that their record was incorrect. These are false positives which have been conclusively identified as such. While the identified false positive rate is around 0.1%, the true figure is certainly much higher: because there will be a proportion of individuals identified as false positives who are in the unfortunate position of lacking the documentation to prove their innocence.

I expect the ISA will be returning many false positives, because they're looking in multiple places for evidence of misbehaviour, and the more places they look in, the more likely they are to stumble across corrupt database records that are superficially incriminating. The harder they look for evidence of misdeeds, the likelier they are to find them (even if no such misdeeds took place).

I'm not going near that thing with a barge-pole. The nature of the precautionary bureaucracy we're establishing in the UK is such that flags raised by the ISA will almost inevitably be propagated elsewhere through the police and social security system, sooner or later. I'm probably as safe as ISA background check applicant can be, because I've got a unique name, no criminal record (beyond the aforementioned speeding tickets), and the previous owners of everywhere I've lived in the past 20 years have been pillars of respectability. However, even an 0.1% chance of being branded as Evil™ is too damn high, because the personal cost if you fail an ISA check is potentially enormous going forward. I assume that in the near future, failing an ISA check will itself be something that people are required to disclose on job applications — not to mention ending up in current police intelligence databases. To put it in perspective, that 0.1% probability of being on the receiving end of a false positive is of the same order as the risk of being seriously injured in a road traffic accident at some time in one's life.

So I won't be doing any readings in schools, or work with youth groups, in the forseeable future. Sorry — but it's too dangerous.



You realize, of course, that the problem of False Positives exists even if you don't apply for a license. Maybe to a slightly smaller degree, but you could simply show up in the db due to one of the errors above without actually participating.


As I understand it, the ISA only adds a database entry to its vetting database when you apply to them for clearance -- otherwise they'd be vetting everyone in the UK, which is about an order of magnitude more people than they're expecting, in the worst case scenario. And it's only when they vet you that they poll the CRB and all the other databases to look for evidence of wrong-doing. Until that point, any corrupt data exists in relative isolation.


Hmmm... a cow-orker shared the same name, general description, make, model and colour of vehicle, etc. as one of the local bad lads. This only came to light when he was intercepted on the "early hours food run" for the datacentre - leaving a petrol station and doing s sharp U-turn to head out of town triggered roadblocks and all kinds of fun. Cue head-scratching by Plod when he has no idea why he's been stopped, and the eventually discover that $Scrote has pierced ears and tattoos where $Cow-orker does not. He believes there are now entries in various official databases for him that basically say "This is not the person you are looking for", and how to disambiguate him from $Scrote.


Does anyone have a definition of what "work or volunteer with vulnerable people" actually means yet? It seems unlikely to me that the scenario Pullman describes would neccessitate clearance, so long as there is a cleared adult (their teacher) present throughout a visit. That was my understanding from going through enhanced disclosure for tutoring undergraduates in Scotland (where they could be 17 and hence minors), anyway; there's only cause for concern if you're potentially the only adult/authority figure in the room.

Otherwise, what's the difference between an author going to a school to give a reading to a class, or a teacher taking that class to a public reading?

The points about false positives still stand, of course; although one would hope that consulting multiple databases would identify the existence of errors for common fields like addresses, it's no guard against potentially damaging flaws in the unique fields that a given database exists for in the first place.


Bruce Schneier's terrific "Beyond Fear" summarizes this problem even better: Let's say you have a "Terrorist Detector" system with 99.99% accuracy, and that one in a million people are terrorists.

So look at the million people that walk through a large airport each year: 100 will be identified as terrorists -- one every three to four days -- maybe one of them actually is, assuming he wasn't smart enough to travel by train, falsify his own identification, get someone else's credit card to buy the ticket, disguise his appearance etc.


@5, as you illustrate, whenever the chance of the test failing is greater than the event being tested for being true, then false positives will dominate. Doesn't help that a lot of people get confused by conditional probability - the odds of not being a terrorist having been identified as one are very different to the odds of being identified as a terrorist if you aren't one.

But it's even scarier with database-based tests, since they'll give the same (potentially incorrect) response every time. At least with, for instance, medical tests, if there's a procedural risk of false positive you can do multiple independent runs, as the probability of repeated false positives will then decrease exponentially.


And the thing is it doesn't guarentee anything. There was a company who I may or may not still work for, whom deal with schools almost exclusively.

They CRB checked a new staff member - clear. Three weeks later they were arrested for indecently exposing themselves outside a single sex school, sentences, tried, found wanting.

CRB checks will only bring summit up if you've done something and been caught already

(And unrelated - for the love of god! Anyone explain why I can't seem to get typepad to let me log in! I've got account/password/everything - but it just won't let me sign in!)


For anyone interested, there's a neat visualisation of false positives / conditional probability here.


You have to pay 64 pounds to even get the opportunity to prove you're not a dangerous predator? That by itself sounds like reason enough to sit out.

Was visiting schools and the like something you did before, Charlie?


Ben: no, I have not previously been visiting schools. I don't write young adult fiction. Although it's sometimes been suggested to me that I take it up; that's just become a lot less likely, all of a sudden.


Suppose a potential paedo (or one not yet caught or suspected) decides to get his certificate, and comes up clean. He commits his crime, is questioned, but whips out his paper, saying "Nope, couldn't be me! I've been certified." and is on his way. I know that's very simplified, and I hope it's not likely to turn out that way.

Not criminal, but relating to database entries. My mother is fairly regularly misidentified as male, presumably because she doesn't have a standard female name (to which she had legally changed it several years ago). This most often happens with her military medical records, despite the fact that they clearly record her having had a hysterectomy 20 years ago. Picture getting an annual postcard reminder; "Mr. So-and-so, it's time for your Pap test." Okay, the Mr. part is an exaggeration, but only slightly. Another possible source of confusion (maybe) is that her maiden name is nearly identical to that of a well known mystery writer's maiden name, the first and middle names are swapped but otherwise the same. That hasn't, and isn't likely to, cause any confusion, but it only takes one person to enter an item into the wrong space (true of nearly anything).

And we've all heard of American-born Muslims, and plenty of others, having problems because they happen to have the same name as someone on a watch list.

Here's hoping that this brilliant idea doesn't make it over to this side of the ocean. We've got enough hassles as it is.


That's horrible. This procedural hoop alone will discourage people from working with children and once the horror stories of false positive arise, it will discourage people even more. Soon the only people volunteering to work with children will be those who really want to work with them, i.e. pedophiles.


@11. Anecdotal evidence suggests that just the idea of the test has dissuaded any number of potential volunteers for things like school trips and after school activities like scouts or sports. I forget which newspaper/website I read that in but I do recall seeing it stated somewhere in the relatively recent past.


False positives in California too. My GF, with a horribly common name, went online to renew her driver's license but was denied and told to go the local DMV. She telephoned and was told that she was "code 3" and needed to show up in person. With a little googling, she found that "code 3" meant that she was dead and verified by medical personnel, not just your run of the mill prank phone call. It took an hour at the DMV to clear it up. She had the advantage of being verifiability alive and in possession of her current driver license.

My sister OTOH had more difficulty. She is a theater costume consultant and has to fly frequently. She was put on the TSA do not fly list, because she had purchased too many one-way tickets. It took her a year to get off it.


Do you know whether this applies to undergraduates as well? I remember one evening you came to talk to the Edinburgh University SF&F society very fondly, will this still be possible without getting the certificates? Graeme Taylor @4 seems to suggest that it will. Looking at their categories, they claim that you only need to be in the database if undertaking "regular" or "controlled" activities, both of which require the activity to be "frequent (once a month or more) or ‘intensive’ (takes place on three or more days in a 30-day period)" (see here [pdf]), so one-off events theoretically needn't be covered. Of course, I am expecting the requirements to be spread further than the strict letter of the agreements.

Thinking further, does this mean that any sort of event where you may have contact with children requires you to be certified safe by the ISA? So, SF conventions, because there may be people under the age of 18 present, require all event staff/speakers/volunteers etc. to have a certificate? This seems to be madness all round, and gets worse the further you get into it.


During the last few presidential elections in the States, there have been many instances of sloppy data matching resulting in innocent citizens being dropped from the voting rolls. Conveniently for one party, these errors tended to drop people who were theoretically more likely to vote for the other party, many of whom were also sufficiently disempowered or otherwise vulnerable to intimidation that they had or would have had a hard time proving their innocence or eligibility to vote.

And, of course, there's the whole terrorist no-fly list that's easy to get on, has no mechanism to allow anyone to check whether they might be on the list, and has no clear way to get off the list.

I really wish Britain (where my partner is from) would stop trying to bring 1984 to life, but "better".


@14 - "she had purchased too many one-way tickets."

Hmm, I wonder what would happen if that became policy in Europe as large airlines like easyJet and Ryanair sell NOTHING BUT one-way tickets - something like 90 million a year between them. There's no such thing as a return ticket, just a separate one-way ticket going the other way.

By now any reasonably-funded US terror group will be buying return tickets to avoid this anyway so it is those kinds of travellers who should be picked up.


It's unclear from what you link to on that murder, though not contradicted, but I recall that the killer's girlfriend was the one who worked at the school attended by the victims.

The point being that this system would only have been incidentally able to prevent the murders. His access to his victims didn't depend on his employment at a school. At most, he would have been somewhere else.

So don't hang around with unmarried teachers. You might need to be certified.


@11 - The paper doesn't certify you aren't a sweaty perv; off the top of my head, mine said something like "Records give no reason to believe that Neil W is an unsuitable person to work with children". It's not a get out of jail free card.

I had to get it done before we actually tried out my maths tutoring skills, but was allowed into the school to talk to the adults without it.

As for making it over the pond, a friend who worked in outdoor pursuits with kids in California laughs at our current system, as he was fingerprinted before being allowed to work with children; a "colleague" who refused to give his date of birth was questioned by the FBI.

Clearly we need to make MPs (and journalists) work with balky and problematic databases over the summer break. I could get on board with them having that kind of second job.


And its not just dodgy data in the databases, but the queries as well. Mis-key a identifier, or improperly place a wildcard and bang, there you are.

This strikes me as a bad idea all the way across the board.


...and surely it goes without saying that this "Stross" character may not be in the system, but he's obviously suspicious, just for being so straightforward about staying out of it. What's he trying to hide, eh??? I wonder if such an issue has come up in any of this "sci-fiction" he writes?


"Makes sense, Captain Richelieu. We should probably check him out."


I once applied for a job through a recruitment agency that requested enhanced CRB disclosure for everyone who registered, because they placed people in jobs at don'tcare isn'thomes and other institutions. It took them ("Disclosure Scotland" - in Staines!) four months to deliver the official non-nonce notification, long after I'd given up on the agency and they had given up on me.


The State can and should licence and surveill anything it thinks fit. However, it should pay the costs, and pay them out of general taxation, not hypothecated taxes, and not fees regarded as covering the direct costs.

That exerts a pressure to only look at what is worthwhile, to look at no more than necessary, to make agencies efficient and to reduce duplication of function by several agencies.

The converse, whcih we have, is that the agencies are not driven to efficiency, and that the pool or class of people who run and work in them have an incentive to duplicate each other, so as to multiply job opportunities.


What most discourages me about this practice is that the overwhelming risks of crimes against children come from family and trusted caretakers like priests and teachers. This law will do like prevent crimes against children, will tend to lead the public to miss the risks from family and caretakers, and take resources away from practices that might genuinely protect children from risk.

Britain is turning into a police state. I wonder why.


It occurs to me that this is quite literally the action of a nanny state. The libertarians were right about something. How 'bout that?


pardon me for asking Charlie, but then are you still going to apply for the National ID Card if, by way of reading a long-ago post of yours, there's the case of false positives in the National ID Card as well?


Yes, I also noticed the same thing Randolph@24 did. I interact with a young child every day, in multiple roles. (Driving, reading, bathing, cooking, changing diapers, going to the playground,...) I didn't have to have any training or background checks or certification. Now it's true that I live in California, not the UK, but I bet the situation over there isn't so terribly different. Are there any efforts to close this dangerous loophole?


Randolph --

Organizations, political systems, what have you, want to get copies of themselves into the future; that's how they function over generational time, and in the case of something like the English system, they've been functioning over generational time since the Glorious Revolution at the very least. So it's got a lot of "copy into the future" built into it.

This takes being able to believe in a secure, or at least somewhat predictible, future; that's exceptionally difficult in the UK, which has multiple secessionist movements, integration into the EU, a demographic transition, a clanking anachronism of a class system with various nasty side effects, no real prospect of surviving major sea level rises without convulsive change, being in a particularly vulnerable position with respect to the economic transition away from the world of the American Hegemony, and a self-sustaining press/public dynamic that supports a general belief in the inevitability of increasing decay and violence. (Never mind whether or not this is factually true; it's become a widespread set of axiomatic beliefs; things are worse and will get worser and there's nothing to be done about it.)

Also, that the whole requisite variety thing means the solution has to be at least as complex as the problem, or it won't work; almost everybody who has tried to solve any kind of complex problem has at least a glimmer of this, even if they don't know about it formally.

These are precisely the sort of circumstances that lead to major social change, which is not always peaceful. The people presently in charge are uneasily aware that they don't know what to do about these problems, and that the class basis of their position is increasingly suspect/fragile, in large part because they're *not* able to present a plausible secure future that anyone believes in.

So the folks who have real political power are wildly insecure and fear replacement, quite possibly catastrophic replacement.

They could change, or they can go repressive; it might stave off the revolution. (Never mind that no one actually wants a revolution, they want to believe in a secure future.) It's also much, much easier, and secondarily so useful, to go repressive. Everyone understands how to derive short-term benefit from this sort of thing, and you get a kind of "well, I'll be all right" buy in from big chunks of your managerial class out of that.

So, in much shorter terms, the current UK power-holding class is chosing the "order" part of peace, order, and good government because they're terrified of disorder.


Given that the UK is doing a lot of this kind of silliness lately, and given that any reasonable person* instantly recognizes it as silly/stupid, there must be a lot of Brits who're looking at the world in a very different way than you and I. The most likely reason is that a lot of Brits are spending most of their lives scared witless (literally), and grasping for anything that will make them feel a little safer.

If that's so, then what is terrifying these people so? And why is Britain so susceptible? Anyone know?

* "reasonable person" means anyone who thinks like I do. (-:


I think Graydon in 28 answered my question in 29.


@Bob I think a lot of people just want to be given an easy answer to what they see as a problem.

Of course because its to do with the government, the answer bares no resemblence to the question but it requires actually thinking to notice that bit.

Personally I'd blame the mail and express as they claim to have the answer to all problems (and then have real difficulty when the BNP take it just that 1mm further).

I'm personally trying to work out when the public view changed from volunteers help because they enjoy leading scouts and brownies, to they help because they are.....
I know its changed because my wife has been a brownie and guide leader for years. 10 years ago I would happily arrive 20 minutes before the end and help tidy up. Nowadays I stay as far away as possible (which is not always possible when they are a leader down and you are the only person available to help at 0 notice).


My sole experience of the CRB was me ex- being checked as soon as she started teaching. As we'd just got married and her name had suddenly changed from her maiden name, and her various records (passport, NHS, etc) were in a mix of both names, we expected problems.

But not to worry, the all clear came back . . . with both forename and surname slightly incorrect.

Bob : I don't think the average Briton is living their lives scared witless, so much as (a) apathetic towards encroaching government until it actually affects us, personally and (b) we have a very aggressive tabloid culture that governments feel they have to react to - thus any tabloid worthy murder (Soham, Baby P) needs to be reacted to with policy change.

I may be to young to remember this correctly, but I think with the Moors Murderers, and the Yorkshire Ripper, the papers simply went with the fact the murderers were Evil - and it actually took years before Police competence / attitudes towards prostitutes in the Ripper investigations was questioned - but these days it seems to be very much that any murder is . . . 'and what are the government going to do to stop it happening again?'.

Answer : bad policy.


Good news: our schools can still get Stross. I understand it's only the frequent visitors, once a month or more (e.g. Pullman, Morpurgo, Horowitz) who have to register. Occasional droppers-in don't. Charlie can't be a steady diet for impressionable minds but he can be an occasional nibble.

Bad news: the underlying logic of this is that the frequent droppers-in are more likely to cultivate relationships, i.e. groom kids ... still under the next-door-to-impossible conditions Pullman describes, of course.

As Charlie says, the CRB system was set up directly in the wake of Ian Huntley, and is pretty well tailored to that case. Therefore it would work to catch Ian Huntley, probably no one else. And as I doubt there's a question saying "Were you responsible for Crime Traveller in the mid-90s" it still wouldn't catch Antony Horowitz out.


This is a complete can of worms.

I'm a member of a Morris Dance side ...
We also try to attract younger members, and we always try to make sure that at least one parent is present at all times when these sessions take place, but we're going to have to go through the hoops.
Oh, and a false-positive rate of 0.1% means AT LEAST 60, 000 people with wrong labels hanging around their necks.

Graydon @ 28 "Class System" - crap / wrong.
This is SUCH a convenient excuse, especially for those with chips on shoulders.
Consider the last two successive Speakers of the House of Commons.
All the reactionary, stupid Labour MP's start ranting on about "class prejudice" when it was seen that M. Martin was a load of crap at his job.
I note there wasn't a word about his predecessor, Betty Boothroyd.
Then there's me: some of my ancestors fled religious persecution to England, in the clothes they stood up in. Two other father-&-son ancestors were successive Chancellors of England.
What was that about class, then?


Perhaps the time has come to face up to the fact that we swim or drown in a sea of data and one of the chores of modern life is to check that it is correct.

We happily cough up £2 to check our credit records: how can we check the police data?

The only obvious way I can think of to get a clue is to get a CRB check done.

Actually, isn't this an argument for linking these databases? How can any individual possibly track down all the data held on them and make sure it is correct when it is scattered all over the place?


Matt B @26: you've got my position on the ID card almost exactly 180 degrees wrong. No, I'm not applying for one of the fucking things. Luckily that particular boondoggle is a dead project walking -- and it looks like the giant big brother database project behind it (the National Identity Register) may be up for the chop after the next election due to cost overruns.

Graydon @28: you're over-egging the class pudding, unless by "power-holding class" you mean the Taliban wing of the Home Office civil service bureaucracy (the folks who believe they could achieve heaven on earth if only the bloody public would shut up and do as they're told), who have fallen in starry-eyed love with the post-Kinnock, post-ideology former stalinist wing of the Labour Party, whose general response to dissent is pretty munch what you'd expect of a bunch of depoliticized former stalinists who's formative political moment was a war to the knife with an equivalent bunch of trotskyites, waged under the shadow of the Iron Handbag.

Class mobility in the UK is a lot higher than non-Brits believe; it's just that until the 1960s, if you managed to move up a class, you did your damndest to look as if you'd always been of that class; the term noveau riche and its negative associations are the key to understanding this.


Surely the question is would it solve a hypothetical case of say a child author who was jailed for child abuse.

William Mayne would be a good example for them to prove the worth of the new scheme. has the gory details.

Considering the offences occured between 1960 and 1975 and only came to light in 2003 I would love to know how their scheme will have led to him being banned from schools after the first incident.

Especially as the piece of paper is supposedly a one off exercise and the writer provides it to the school. Provided he gets the paper before he is arrested he can still use it to enter other schools.


You are 100% correct, and it is not "theoretical" a colleague of mine had the misfortune of sharing the same first and last name as a $bad_guy. he was immediately suspended from his work teaching children.

It took considerable time, effort and loss of earning (and to be fair cost of phonecalls, etc) to clear his name.

Obviously no compensation offered by any of the parties that slurred his name in error.


"As of last November, the CRB had falsely identified more than 12,000 people as criminals."

And they'll never get off it. As per the DNA database, nobody's innocent, they just "haven't committed an offence". Yet.


"By now any reasonably-funded US terror group will be buying return tickets to avoid this anyway so it is those kinds of travellers who should be picked up."

One of the 'reasons' that the conspiracy nuts give for the 7.7 bombings having been done by someone else is that the four of them bought return tickets...


"which is not always possible when they are a leader down and you are the only person available to help at 0 notice"

Send the kids home with a note saying 'Tonight's brownie meeting had to be cancelled due to the lack of correctly vetted adults, the six week delay in vetting them and the reluctance of people to volunteer because of the vetting process. This is a direct result of the flawed scheme implemented by the current Labour government. If you wish to complain, please contact your MP.'


"the CRB system was set up directly in the wake of Ian Huntley, and is pretty well tailored to that case. Therefore it would work to catch Ian Huntley, probably no one else."

It won't even do that; he used a FALSE NAME. All the 'suspicions' were under his other name. If he's prepared to kill children, there's a reasonable chance he'll be prepared to not include his other name on the vetting form.


Apropos @40: what Katie isn't mentioning may bear explanation for Americans: British railway ticket pricing is such that the price difference between a one-way ticket and a return ticket of the same type (valid for one month) is £1, i.e. US $1.65. The price of an off-peak one-way London/Leeds ticket is currently £87; the return version costs £88.

Hence the allusion to the stupidity of the 7/7 conspiracy nuts.


"Especially as the piece of paper is supposedly a one off exercise and the writer provides it to the school. Provided he gets the paper before he is arrested he can still use it to enter other schools."

Or people will forge one. Afterall, they're already CRIMINALS.

This thing that the government has where they believe that people willing to fiddle with children will be completely honest in all their other dealings is astounding. It's like their belief that the kinds of people willing to commit the majority of traffic offences have made sure their car registration is up-to-date with their correct address on it...

Unless we're going to start making these things forgery-proof (which we can't manage with BANKNOTES), then people will get round the system. Paedophiles do have something of a reputation for being both persistent and highly manipulative.



Huntley did not use a false name on the job application. He also had no convictions. The real problems were a combination of the school asking the wrong questions and Humberside police not being able to provide anything useful on the soft information side due to the quality of their procedures at the time.

That latter bit is where the real problem lay but rewriting a computer system (it was done in 2005/6) and adding a new work process is not a government solution to the problem.


Charlie - If you ever feel yourself running out of steam in your current literary genres, I predict on the basis of #26 that you'll make a killing in the political analysis field. Your style is certainly more interesting than Nick Robinson's.


Charlie @36 --

I don't mean hereditary class by the word "class" in "power holding class"; I mean the social mechanisms that answer "how do
we know they are like us?" (Which in the UK are still significantly influenced by hereditary class, but which seem to be changing *faster* inside the power-holding groups than outside them by quite a bit.)

"Power holding class" is the folks who have got actual power and use it, as you have described far better than I could hope to do.

The US has at least one class mechanism (for a group with real power; had the nuke launch keys under Dubya...) that requires someone to espouse greed, racism, sexism, and homophobia as virtues in order to match "like us"; Canada has a bunch that involve a ton of double-think about niceness. (The big point of the Harper Tories is that they're trying to *replace* this set of mechanisms, but that's a wild digression.) So far as I can tell from way over here, the UK's power-holding class isn't fighting over what the government is for (which the US and Canadian ones are); there's a general broad agreement that government is for keeping "people like us" *safe*.

This goes along with a lot of minor direness, but that's the core problem because saf
e is impossible. (Compare your point about China being presently run by engineers, and what that makes the Chinese leadership blind to when making decisions.)

Calling it a clanking anachronism, well, that last major setup like that -- us safe, and everybody else, including most of those who live here, can go whistle -- that I can call to mind was Ancien Regime France. Plus most of the justifications seemed to be aimed at this imagination of 1960 that didn't quite happen and certainly doesn't exist now.


You could become a government minister - apparently they are so much more trustworthy that authors that they can visit schools without the same checks -

Though from what Ben @33 says, they might have had to admit that their argument that visiting authors needed to be checked was wrong.


Although 10% of records may have an error, since government databases are copied that the number of errors is less than #of_records * #of_Database *0.1

But it's still a lot, indeed one of the government databases was designed by me, back when I had a real job :)

I've also been through the CRB checks because I work with my son's scout troop, and can say as a fact that it would have been trivial to fox the system, in fact it was only slightly easier to do the "right" thing than the wrong one.

There's another factor that of "intelligence". I got a copy of the paper that said that I'd never ever done anything bad to anyone at all, even slightly.
Which of course is absolutely true, just ike everything else you read on offical papers.

But the scout association gets to see "intelligence" on me, and apropopos your point about "challenges", I can't challenge this because I never see it.

The problem you miss is that each part individually makes sense. You don't want convicted criminals working with kids (usually), and police may know that a person is dodgy, but not prosecute. For instance, underage sex is typically not taken to court if the girl is clearly consenting and not mich under 16.
Unless you're a christian.

There is a political problem that by far the biggest cause of rape outside the family unit is exposure to priests, not just catholic ones either.
Of course membership of a church is not treated as evidence of criminal sexual intent, so one can have a lot of "friends" who are paedos, covered up their crimes, and not only be allowed to work with children, but be the designated person to handle the vetting process for your outfit.


Wouldn't the Data Protection Act mean that you'd have the right to see whatever "intelligence" was being put out about you?


What next - genetic tests for predisposition to paedophilia, MRI based thought police? (shades of the XYY chromosome debacle).

While the UK continues to be an example of stupidity in this regard, the good news in the US is that the company that was selling security passes for air travel went out of business recently.

The database accuracy issue seems to be the security world's equivalent of the financial world's derivatives construction and risk valuation. Both are based on assumptions of correctness and the unlikelihood of repercussions if proven incorrect.


To charlie @ 36,

My sincerest apologies for my 180 degree wrong answer. :(


Reminds me of this old review in the TLS:

... But this relationship depends on the secular Left-liberals co-operating, by also making childhood a transcendental category. That they have done so has less to do with the welfare of children than with a restless search by these elites for a source of moral legitimacy to shore up their managerial foundations. For the dilemma of contemporary American elites is that, while their only real justification is that they form a class necessary to the terms of consumption - a combination of salesmen managing consumer demand and social workers managing the resulting social breakdown - in America this is an insufficient moral basis on which to rule. Elites are therefore pressed to find sources of purely moral legitimacy to supplement the practical ones. The list of categories of legitimation deployed, exhausted and then tossed aside is long: community, religion, rights, civil society and, more lately, virtue and shame - but among the most enduring and one of the few still potent is children.


Flippanter @53:

That's a mouthful. Just trying to parse it is making my head spin.

"secular Left-liberals"

might as well be saying



I may have the details wrong, but the piece of paper isn't the only proof - you can take the reference number on the bit of paper when someone presents it, and the CRB'll tell you who it was issued to etc.

Of course, what one then needs to do is copy a real certificate for someone who can turn up to multiple schools (taxi driver permitted to drive kids etc.) to avoid any alarm bells ringing when one turns up on the database working withs kid in two places.

@33 As Charlie says, the CRB system was set up directly in the wake of Ian Huntley, and is pretty well tailored to that case. Therefore it would work to catch Ian Huntley, probably no one else. And as I doubt there's a question saying "Were you responsible for Crime Traveller in the mid-90s" it still wouldn't catch Antony Horowitz out.

To be fair, many people can't cope very well with bureaucracy, so it may well discourage more paedos than you think. Of course, it will deter many many more law-abiding citizens.

I recently watched all of Crime Traveller (a review by one of my bad sci-fi buddies is here) and would happily allow Horowitz into classrooms - just keep him away from TV deals.


You are all much too late.
The UK already fulfils the deinition of a police state, where a solitary cop can decide he doesn't like what you are doing and give you an impossible-to-remove "criminal" tag.
Never mind that this is contrary to articles 10, 11, 12 & 19 of the UDHR they will stuff you anyway with, at present, no rederess .....

Welcome to what the US rightwingnuts are, possibly correctly, referring to as the EUSSR.
Not nice.


Matt, #27: you do know that the abuse of authority by child protection agencies is a problem, right?

Graydon, #28: I think part of the problem may be closer to home, in the uncertainties of parliamentary government--a party can fall out of power in a day, if matters go badly enough.


For a fee of £64 you apply to the ISA for a background check.

Not strictly true; if you're an unpaid volunteer, the CRB check is free. If you're an employee, it's typical for the employer to foot the bill.


It's worth noting that although authors are considered possible threats to Teh Childrenz, MPs are (seemingly) automatically considered to be safe. As The Register asks - would you leave your child alone with a cabinet minister?
Article has other salient points.


I coach soccer (football, of course) in Canada and am required to do a CPIC check with the RCMP once every two years. The club pays that fee for me. If I were to do something else with kids (I used to drive for the boys' classes on field trips sometimes, at their old school) I need a separate CPIC check. Happily, the school paid that fee. The problem we have now is that coaches won't be accepted for fear of litigation if something does happen. Damned irritating, and I have hated the fact that I have to jump through these hoops, especially since not long ago I also had to clear a comprehensive criminal and security background check for yet another purpose. But reading what you've written about cross-pollinating the screw-ups, Charlie, suddenly I'm not so worried about that.



@49: Do you have a cite for that claim about priests in general? Certainly in the CoE child protection is taken extremely seriously, with all parishes required to have a child protection officer and (IIRC) CRB checks for all volunteers working with children.

I have no problems with requiring stringent checks on volunteers, but this system - with no way of seeing the information that is held on your file, and no way to change false information - is deeply flawed.


As a writer with a criminal record myself, I'm saddened that Britain is rapidly becoming an overcautious mini-USA where the police can arrest you and search your house for no reason whatsoever.

I am however overjoyed that old vulnerable people intimidate me, and I fucking hate kids. Stupid little bastards. Sorted.

Communities and society are based on a sense of mutal trust. If you take that away and everyone is a suspect rapist, what do we get? I'm not advocating a lack of caution, of course we need sensible measures - but what happened to the presumption of innocence?


I feel prevailing climate can be misleading, weather changes and is quite subject to local conditions, kinda like bad news, seems to get more attention, by too many, than it deserves.
Here's to hoping you have some 'safe' contact with young children through family, friends and the rest.
A little can go along way. I think there is far more danger in the other direction.

[ Link deleted by moderator ]


Matt Austern: I interact with a young child every day, in multiple roles. (Driving, reading, bathing, cooking, changing diapers, going to the playground,...) I didn't have to have any training or background checks or certification. [...] Are there any efforts to close this dangerous loophole?

If the government doesn't, private initiative might jump into the breach. An elementary school near to where I live (in Germany) is paying child security consultants who tell the mothers that they must stay home with the kids, because fathers cannot be trusted.


When people says that Western World (meaning Europe and US) is fraked... well this kind of action just run as an example.

You gave the "false positive" reason. But there's also the "false negative".

But there are also people who are "normal" (not pedophiles, for instance) but then something happens and a mental unbalance appears.

The point is that this kind of "certification" looks like certifications in the IT world: what means someone is "Java certified"? When tech was not readily available it meant that the guy knew at least a small bit of Java. It also meant that he would cost you twice more than uncertified professionals... Now it just means that the guy will cost more.

So, what's the reason for such certification? First is obvious: populist policy. It will also work as a way for increasing taxes over citizens. Not to mention that it will give birth to new forms of corruption and traffic of influence.

To be honest with you, this is the kind of initiative I'd expect in places like Brazil... But legislative decadence arrived 1rst world countries as well...


What can possibly happen to a schoolchild in a classroom?

In the two largest public (American meaning) school systems in the USA, New York City and Los Angeles Unified School District, there's a special process for the accused. Teachers accused of certain categories of improper conduct (ambiguously defined combinations of words, gestures, and touches) are sent to "teacher's jail." They are presumed guilty until proven innocent, banned from any classroom, and ordered to report to work each weekday in a child-free office building, clock in in the morning, do crossword puzzles or sudoku or read books all day, and clock out. They remain on the payroll. Each of LA and NYC pay a multiple of $10 million per annum for such teachers paid not to teach.

The teachers unions don't help unless the teacher has 2 years seniority -- or passes the 2-year mark while in the teacher's jail.

Can we afford to expand this kind of system, based on unproven allegations, with or without making schools into purported "hard targets" by absurd extra credentialing procedures driven by fear and political posturing?

I am not detailing the 2-year procedure now needed for teachers in California to be credentialed. If I put it in a science fiction story, nobody would believe me.


What I am about to say is utterly irrelevant to the present discussion, but I think many of Charlie's readers will be charmed by the Gnauriad's not-at-all-sensationalist report that Divers [have been] spooked by tales of assault as swarms of aggressive jumbo flying squid invade the shallows off San Diego.

"Aggressive jumbo flying squid" is a rather good description of Cthulhu; I'm only surprised that He has returned as a swarm rather than an individual.


I had to have a CRB check because I am a solicitor and sometimes represent children. (Never mind that you can't become a solicitor if you have any criminal convictions without being interviewed etc by the Law Society, and that any subsequent convictions have to be disclosed and most will result in striking off)

Both my CRB and that of the colleague who applied at the same time were wrong. (Both were 'clear', but in each case they got our names wrong, so presumably had not in fact checked against either of us.) Mine had to be re-done twice before they got it right, hers once. So on my personal experience, 3/5 applications were inaccurate and therefore useless.

Seems to m there is also the major problem that a clear check is no guarantee that a person is not a risk, merely that they have no convictions. Not only does this mean that volunteers, authors etc are made to jump through embarrassing, expensive and offensive hoops, but also means that schools and other organsiations may be relying on the checks to keep children saf, rather than actually considering whether any specific individual may pose a risk. I suspect that not only will this mean many fewer people willing to become involvd, but also higher risk as poeople rely more on the certificates and less on atually considering the circumstances and the way on which people are behaving, or childre reacting to them.


"Rational public policy" and "pedophilia" are two things that simply do not mix.


The key problem with policies like this is that they replace vigilance with databases. The only way to limit the damage of child abuse of all kinds is for teachers and caregivers in general to know what the signs are and for there to be effective and discrete channels through which they can be investigated - discretion is important, because the fear of false accusation deters reporting, so it is vital that everything is done quietly until the facts are uncovered.


@70: IMHO the only way of limiting damage is really caring about our children. If we are truly friends of our children and we talk & use good sense we will know when things are going bad. In all senses.

I spend lots of time with my daughter. I talk to her (a lot) and I always answer her questions. I know when she is uncomfortable with other people/foreign environments and I try to detect if it means danger. I spend time looking if it is all right at school, at the club, at her courses (Chinese, ballet, rhythmic gymnastic, volleyball). I talk to her friends parents... I follow what she's doing at her computer... And I do all that avoiding intrusion as much as possible.

But I know lots of parents who just don't give a dime... they expect someone do parents duty. And government/policy are usually the worst choices when taking care of our children is taken into account.


Oh, this is very funny indeed (in a sad way). It turns out that barred people can still be employed "with safeguards" for performing controlled activities;

• Frequent or intensive support work in general
health settings, the NHS and further education.
(Such work includes cleaners, caretakers, shop
workers, catering staff, car park attendants and
• Individuals working for specified organisations
(e.g. a local authority) who have frequent access
to sensitive records about children and
vulnerable adults.
• Support work in adult social care settings.

So, it's OK to employ a child molester as a school dinner cook, as long as you keep an eye on them. Bad enough this allows amiable sociopaths to blag their way past well-meaning idiots. It also allows uncaught child molesters to identify and hire caught ones.

As a parent, and having read around a little, I am all for background checks for those who work with my children. However, I don't see why it has to be such a dark an expensive art. Criminal convictions should simply be a matter of public record.


We discovered an interesting practice in Texas when we moved there back in 1997: the state *reuses* driver's license numbers. I.e., if someone's license lapses, the number is reassigned to a new applicant.

And, since social security numbers can't be used for ID (yeah, right), Texas businesses and credit bureaus use the license number instead. My wife was assigned a number formerly belonging to a chec[k que] bouncer, with predictable consequences when she went shopping.

Actually, nothing all that bad happened and the problem was resolved with a few phone calls. But still...


72: Oh, God. That has a real Nimrod XV230 sound to it; we'll just fudge this bit to sort out the admin, of course, people will be sensible in applying it, yup, as low as reasonably probable...sign here, Sir Bufton.



Also, what's with that arse-awful mess of a URI? The Government is weirdly stingy about domains, but trying to pretend like they have a is...pathetic, and spammy. If I hadn't encountered it before, I wouldn't send that my personal data before doing a WHOIS lookup.

Come to think of it...

Domain name:

Andrew Henning

Registrant type:
UK Limited Company, (Company number: 3420895)

Registrant's address:
Quay House
The Quay
BH15 1HA
United Kingdom

GX Networks Ltd t/a [Tag = 123-REG]

Relevant dates:
Registered on: 22-Aug-2007
Renewal date: 22-Aug-2009

Registration status:
Registered until renewal date.

Name servers:

WHOIS lookup made at 16:26:28 21-Jul-2009

Whaat? The ISA's Web presence is anchored to one random bloke in Poole? And their contact links point to a completely different domain? *headdesk headdesk* No HTTPS either...


The Archdiocese of Atlanta (probably all the dioceses in the U.S., but I'm not absolutely sure) requires everyone who teaches children or might work with children in any way to get a background check. When the policy went into effect a few years ago and I and other catechists at my church were checked, I was such a false positive; someone with a vaguely similar name had a criminal record (don't recall what exactly, now). After some back and forth communication with the company that does the background checks I got it straightened out.



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