Data breach: the computer should have just said 'no'
Sir: The image of a hapless, overworked or ill-informed junior civil servant sending these disks through the post misses the point completely. At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Gordon Brown trotted out the plainly agreed government line that the recent data breach was an operational failure, not a "systemic" failure. This is absolutely wrong, and touches on basic system considerations taught on all undergraduate IT courses.
It should not be possible for anyone below the highest security clearance (required only for system maintenance) to download the entire database. It should not be possible to burn disks using any workstation within the department involved. It should not be possible to send unencrypted critical data anywhere, on- or off- line.
Rules and procedures for staff are meaningless in the area of data security. The only security worth having is if the computer just says "no" when told to do something that should not happen. Otherwise the feckless, overworked or malevolent will help themselves.
It was inherently a systemic failure, because it happened when it should not have been able to happen. Perhaps the PM has been misinformed. Perhaps he does know how these things work. Either way, until the Government fully understands the issues involved, none of us can allow our security to be unnecessarily compromised by administrative ineptitude.
The proposed ID card database cannot be allowed to go ahead in the current state. While biometric data can securely identify individuals, if it is even remotely possible for someone to substitute their fingerprint for mine, and hijack my identity, the database is not only useless, but dangerous.
Sir: My bank manager advised me to change the number of my bank account in the light of HMRC's loss of my personal information. She did this without charge, but I wonder if HMRC will compensate customers of other banks who demand recompense for the provision of new cheques, pay-in books and plastic cards?
John Eoin Douglas
Sir: An obvious precaution is to change the names of one's children.
Squeeze on Gaza breaks Geneva rules
Sir:Humanitarian and human rights agencies are concerned about the increasingly desperate situation in Gaza, which includes restrictions on the supply of fuel and food ("Palestinians spell out their vision of the future in peace blueprint", 21 November). We are deeply disturbed by the Israeli government's actions, which amount to the collective punishment of ordinary families, in response to the reprehensible and indiscriminate Palestinian rocket attacks.
The rocket attacks are unlawful and must be condemned. However, punishing ordinary families is a violation of Israel's obligations under the Geneva Conventions.
Without adequate supplies of fuel and equipment, the whole of Gaza's water system teeters on the edge of collapse.
In the weeks after Israel declared Gaza a "hostile territory", only 41 per cent of necessary food imports were allowed into Gaza. Food stocks are running low. Gaza's people are becoming the most food-aid dependent people in the world, with over three quarters of the population requiring assistance.
Critically ill Palestinians are being denied exit permits to leave Gaza and thereby access to hospitals in Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the West Bank.
Israel has given assurances to the UK government that its actions will not cause adverse humanitarian consequences. From our experience on the ground, it is evident that the consequences are, in fact, severe.
The UK and its European partners must bring pressure to bear on all parties to end violations of international law and ensure the free movement of goods and people. Governments cannot stand on the sidelines and allow ordinary people to be indiscriminately punished and the Geneva Conventions to be breached.
Penny Lawrence, International Director Oxfam, Tom Porteus, London Director Human Rights Watch, Daleep Mukarji, Director Christian Aid, Jeremy Croft, Head of Policy Amnesty International UK, Ken Caldwell, Director of International Operations Save the Children UK, Raja Jarrah, Programme Director CARE International UK, Oxford
Sir: As a former diplomat and head of Middle East Department (and one-time student kibbutznik), I think the much-trailed Annapolis conference doomed to fail, like its predecessors, for the reasons explained by the excellent new book by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy.
At heart, we have all long known that the only possible basis for a lasting peace, which enough people on both sides might reluctantly accept to enable them to control their own extremists, is the full "land for peace" deal (back to the pre-1967 green line etc), much echoed since the UK proposed it in Resolution 242 some 40 years ago.
I have long been convinced, however, that there is no chance of the Israelis accepting this as long as the world's only super-power continues effectively to give them unconditional military, economic and diplomatic support, whether they pursue their dream of "greater Israel" or not; and that there is no chance of the US withdrawing this support, regardless of the party in power in Washington, as long as the bulk of the US electorate remain persuaded by the superbly effective Zionist lobby that it is somehow in their interests to maintain it.
Thus the Quartet will remain ineffectual. The three non-American parties, however, might achieve real progress if they agreed on a long-term approach to the heart of the problem - which lies in the minds of the US electorate.
They need: to build as near as possible a global coalition (except the US and Israel) around the 242 solution, and the fact that traditional US policy actually helps only Zionist and Islamist extremists, and harms everyone else; and to concentrate, for as many years and as much money as it takes, on getting this message across to ordinary American voters, over the heads of their politicians.
Even Tony Blair could then probably do some good, if he set up his office in Iowa rather than Jerusalem.
Sir: Terry Grimwood (Letters, 14 November) may be right when he says the demands of some extreme Palestinians can never be met, but he forgets that some extremists in Israel also demand all the land as a right, and want to see Palestine wiped off the map. Indeed this is exactly what they are doing now. In the UK we only ever get half a story and there is always a mirror image if we look for it.
Of course Arabs help with humanitarian aid, but I suspect we never hear much about it; how many know that Saudi Arabia is in the process of sending 50 dialysis machines to Gaza for example? Compared with the war machinery we provide, and the cost of war generally, could we ever say that we in the West help people in need enough?
Sir: Chris Doyle ("UK fails to speak out over Gaza", 14 November) himself "omits the legal picture" when he claims that "Israeli policy is a war crime" because he alleges it is "using the starvation and strangulation of civilians under occupation as a method of warfare".
What I find most puzzling is his assumption that Israel should supply fuel and electricity to a foreign country, Gaza, which is, to all intents and purposes, at war with it, as is evidenced by the daily barrage of missiles aimed at civilian areas, the manufacture of which depends to a large extent on these very items.
There is, however, one extremely significant fact that the Director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding chooses to ignore: that Gaza also has a border with Egypt through which essential civilian supplies can also be imported. Unfortunately it seems that the Hamas administration is more interested in bringing in armaments and explosives in order to further its own warlike activities.
Martin D Stern
Salford, greater manchester
Oxford University's plans for reform
Sir: Your article on Dr John Hood (16 November) was muddled about the process of reform at Oxford University.
Its main error was to conflate two sets of proposals. One was a Green Paper on Academic Strategy. Dons voted on specific elements in 2005 and changes were made. Far from being "humiliatingly killed off", the final version is now the University's Corporate Strategy, detailing the five-year plan for Oxford. The other set of proposals related to governance. They were rejected, but there was widespread agreement that change of some sort was needed.
Dr Hood will end his term in September 2009, not 2008.
The University was never running a multi-million-pound deficit. There was, and continues to be, a very large gap between government funding for research and teaching, and the real cost. This gap is made up from the University's own sources of income, including Oxford University Press. That is one of the reasons that Oxford will be launching a hugely ambitious fundraising campaign next year.
Press Office University of Oxford
Easy to get drunk on today's cheap spirits
Sir: Philip Hensher (Opinion, 13 November) correctly draws our attention to the massive change in the relative cost of alcohol per unit for different types of drinks, but I think he underestimates the importance of the current price of spirits in bars and shops.
Last year, three young men boarded a bus in a town in the North-west of England at about 6pm. They had been drinking most of the afternoon. One had an argument with other passengers and, after stepping off the bus, was beaten to death by them. Newspaper accounts of the event mentioned that his two friends, still on the bus, were reported to have been considered "unreliable witnesses" by the police because they (and the poor man who was killed) had that afternoon each consumed approximately 22 "shots" – whisky and other spirits.
In the late 1960s, that rapidity of consumption would have been very rare. A pint of beer in a pub cost about 2 shillings (10p). Today, it is £2.50p – more in some places. The cost of a unit of alcohol taken as beer has therefore gone up by approximately 25 times. In the 1960s, I couldn't afford to drink wine or spirits in pubs but I do remember selling decent wines at 8s (40p) a bottle and standard brands of whisky, gin etc at £2.10s (£2.50p) in my dad's off-licence. Today the respective retail prices show, roughly, a 12-fold increase for wine (less of course for Mr Hensher's wine at £1.97) – but an extraordinarily low four-fold increase for spirits.
Yes, there is a good case for higher taxes – certainly for spirits. Today, it is easy to get very drunk, very quickly, on spirits, less easy with wine and considerably less so with beer.
H Robert Mann
Spotlight turns to England disaster
Sir: How lucky this government is. Steve McClaren and his incompetent team lose a football match. The mass media and the moronic masses forget all about Gordon Brown and his incompetent team losing two CDs containing personal data on 25 million people.
Sir: A second-in-command who proves a failure when promoted to leader; constant reorganisation affecting performance and morale; team members who can't handle the transition from domestic stage to world stage and others who take their eye off the ball with disastrous consequences. Perhaps it's time to invite the Dutch or Portuguese to take over government as well as the England team.
Bags of trouble
Sir: Gordon Brown wants to get rid of plastic carrier bags. I, like most people, use these bags to wrap rubbish in when putting it in the dustbin. If there are no "free" bags, I would have to buy waste bags. Where's the advantage?
R J Edwards
Unfair to Essex
Sir: Your article "Essex Girl on the Road to the White House" (19 November) is as ill-informed as it is patronising. With some of the best-performing schools in the UK , two universities and still relatively cheap housing attracting a growing number of young professionals, residents of this county are as likely to be graduates as in many other parts of the UK. Surely it is now time for The Independent to abandon this meaningless stereotype.
Soup that saves lives
Sir: Councillor Angela Harvey (letter, 19 November) states with a straight face that the "majority of soup runs are failing rough sleepers by simply handing out food that ensures that people can remain on the streets". No, they ensure that the rough sleepers don't starve in her green and pleasant land.
Cowling, North Yorkshire
Student life in Leeds
Sir: My memories of student life in Leeds are far removed from those of K G Banks (Letters, 20 November). My digs were in Roundhay, five minutes from the park. The local pub had a full-sized snooker table and draught Guinness. Mrs Pashley's food was delicious; I remember jugged hare for Sunday lunch. I regret that her kindness went unappreciated at the time. I scraped in by accident but remember thinking in my second term that if anyone had told me university would be this good I would have worked much harder at school.
D J Ridley
Sir: I thought it was all over with hotlines since John Major's misfortunes over cones, but if we are going to have a Green Hotline perhaps we could also have a Brown Hotline, to help people distinguish really new spending commitments from the merely recycled.