back to article Cops visit school of 'wrong person's child,' mix up victims and suspects in epic data fail

The UK's Information Commissioner's Office has put the West Midlands Police (WMP) on the naughty step after the force was found to have repeatedly mixed up two people's personal data for years. Britain's data watchdog says the force "incorrectly linked and merged the records" of the individuals that share the same name and …

  1. Sp1z

    > The unnamed pair were both victims of crime, although one had been a suspect was well

    I'm glad to hear about their good state of health!

    1. Jimmy2Cows Silver badge
      Devil

      Ah good. It's not just me enjoying the irony of so many mistakes, in an article about cops making many mistakes.

      1. Radaos
        Coat

        Wrapped?

        Page tab title now corrected from "Police wrapped" to "Police rapped".

        Personally, I would support the ICO having the power to encase in clingfilm as a punishment.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Wrapped?

          Re: Clingfilm.

          Shhhhhh, that policy is currently under wraps!

  2. 42656e4d203239 Silver badge
    Holmes

    Plus ça change

    Back in the day (24 years ago? really? blink and you miss it), in another life, I found it extremely odd that the local force system (and probably the PNC on which it was modelled) was set up assuming that no two "customers" would have the same name and DoB (That's what ID cards are for lol)... there were provisons for the occurrance, of course, but they weren't immediately obvious. I did ask a question but got a shrug from the Inspector.

    So, in this case, once the mess started I doubt there was much the force could do to sort it out becasue officers/staff would be querying the data, getting whichever "customer" was first, and, assuming that the computer was giving them the right "customer", modifying the record accordingly and consequently screwing up the data leading to much unpleasantness all round.

    To compound the issue, IIRC the UI didn't allow an officer to correct the mistake, even if they had noticed the snfu, (24x7) so the data manager (0900-1700 Monday - Friday if you were lucky) would have to have knowledge of the records concerned and not make a mistake when unpicking the mess.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Plus ça change

      In same early 2000s era I was building a data deduplication system for banks to deal with OFAC and all the terrorists under the bed hysteria after 9/11.

      Demonstrating it to the MET we were shown their in-house system that had a bunch of DB scripts to automatically match Alistair=Alisdair=Al=Ali

      Great for matching 60s E London gangsters, not so great against Al-Qaeda, or Alistair-Qaeda to the boys in blue.

      1. Marty McFly Silver badge
        FAIL

        Re: Plus ça change

        My (now former) bank could have used your services.

        Around 10 years ago they migrated their back end to a new infrastructure. Sort of a one-way ticket the day they went live. Somewhere along the line they lost their unique identifiers and presumed firstname lastname were sufficient. My wife matched someone with the same name and she had full access to their bank account. Ooops.

        Took the bank three weeks of all-hands-on-deck to manually scrub the database and fix the problems. I moved my banking elsewhere. The only commodity a bank has is the trust and faith of their depositors, and they lost that from me.

        The ironic part... This was at a "Tech" credit union.

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: Plus ça change

          We made serious £££ (well €€€) with a notable Celtic-Tiger financial institution that had been doing really well adding new accounts - until somebody noticed they had several times the whole population as customers. And this was before the 2008 meltdown

    2. Martin-73 Silver badge

      Re: Plus ça change

      I was once detained because of a similar address and name to a suspect. Despite being a teenager and not 'in his late 50s'. The cop who what we'd now call 'dearrested*' me was scathing about the IQ of the constable making the detention

      *wasn't called arresting back then, you were detained till officially told 'you are under arrest', this distinction is important to make for future travel plans

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Plus ça change

        That's the advantage for our colonial cousins. The standard response of "how many mags can we empty" means much less future paperwork

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Plus ça change

          The joke which had made its way around our metropolitan area was, "*BLAM* *BLAM* *BLAM* *BLAM* *BLAM* Police! Freeze, or we'll reload!"

      2. heyrick Silver badge

        Re: Plus ça change

        Many years ago down in Somerset, a lot of commotion and banging on the door. I open it and a bunch of rozzers push their way in. I was about to push back when I noticed the uniforms so let them come in, look around, and shout "where's Annabelle". I shrug, no idea who they're looking for.

        Is this such and such an address?

        Yup.

        Annabelle something-complicated-that-sounds-scandanavian lives here, we need to talk to her. Judging by the attitude, I'm guessing "talk" was a euphemism.

        I invite them to look around again and tell me if they see anything at all that looks in any way like a female lives here.

        ...

        Two months later, bang bang bang. I open the door and say "Annabelle still isn't here". The guy is like "Oh, it's you again, fuck".

        I offered to go put the kettle on but they politely declined. Never came back so I'm guessing other they caught up with her or got the address wiped.

        The only Annabelle I knew at the time was about six, cute, and perpetually clumsy. Hardly a criminal mastermind.

        <shrug>

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Plus ça change

          Good on you for being nice about it, even offering tea. It was very clearly their fault (especially the second time), but you kept your cool, which helped them keep theirs. Good work.

          I'm leftpondian. An awful lot of the "police are too aggressive!" complains are after the person being confronted (often legitimately pulled over for a traffic violation) does something like give the officer the bird, or blow cigarette smoke in their face after being politely asked to put out the cigarette, or refusing fairly standard orders that were given appropriately. I've never once had a truly bad experience with an officer, and I think that's largely because I treat them with respect.

          1. Norfolk N Chance

            Re: Plus ça change

            Good advice which has served me well over the years.

            Such common sense and basic courtesy is now grossly unfashionable today of course, and lacks the basic elements of drama and entitlement needed to prove to an overcrowded world how unique and special we are!

          2. Martin-73 Silver badge

            Re: Plus ça change

            yeah the 'i know my rights' brigade need to learn 'they're rights, not you have to enforce them with your phalluses

        2. pig

          Re: Plus ça change

          "The only Annabelle I knew at the time was about six, cute, and perpetually clumsy. Hardly a criminal mastermind."

          And that is exactly what she wants you to think.

      3. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: Plus ça change

        "I was once detained because of a similar address and name to a suspect. Despite being a teenager and not 'in his late 50s'. "

        Not too long ago there was a woman that was identified through facial recognition robbing a store (or similar crime). The issue was that the woman the plod arrested was 8 months gone and the woman they were actually looking for was much slimmer. Not JUST arrested but banged up in the slammer, full processing and held for a couple of days. It was bizarre that the name the facial recognition spit out (with known issues correctly identifying people with dark skin) was taken as gospel with so much other exonerating evidence. I expect the pay out for that one will cost a local PD a pile of money. It should also cost a judge their cushy job for signing a warrant on such flimsy evidence.

      4. Martin an gof Silver badge

        Re: Plus ça change

        Human error, too. Not long after I'd passed my driving test I was driving my mum's blue Renault 11 home and was flagged down by a policeman at the side of the road. Heart rate doubled, I wound the window down and the bloke leaned in...

        "Oh, sorry, I thought you were a taxi."

        M.

      5. SVD_NL Silver badge

        Re: Plus ça change

        It's still the case in most countries I know.

        You can be detained while you're being investigated for a crime (up to a day or two unless a judge extends it), and you're only officially arrested if they also charge you with a crime.

    3. Disgusted Of Tunbridge Wells Silver badge

      Re: Plus ça change

      I got a letter from a debt collection agency a few years ago saying that I had unpaid bills and if I didn't pay up they were going to come and take my stuff.

      It turned out that there was somebody with the same name including middle name a few miles away and they meant to send it to him.

      I don't even understand how that mistake happened. Did they just search a database for my name in my town and pick the first one they came across?

      All sorted with a phone call though, they didn't make it a hassle.

  3. keithpeter Silver badge
    Windows

    Just in case...

    ...anyone recognises a possible repeat of this anywhere in the UK's labyrinthine public sector IT estate

    https://ccea.org.uk/regulation/guidance/unique-learner-number

    1. EngineerAl

      Ccea blocks me, why?

      When I try to see anything on ccea.org.uk I am blocked. I live in Canada. What is ccea hiding?

      1. keithpeter Silver badge
        Windows

        Re: Ccea blocks me, why?

        Oh, they don't like US either (just checked using my sdf.org shell account and links)!

        I have absolutely no idea why they do that. Try

        https://www.gov.uk/guidance/how-to-access-your-personal-learning-record

        The actual UK government Web page for students about the personal learning record that uses the ULN as the key.

        1. David 132 Silver badge
          Happy

          Re: Ccea blocks me, why?

          Heh. Can confirm too that here in the US, "your country has been blocked".

          A quick VPN connection to a Manchester endpoint defeats that particular bit of brilliant UK government IT.

          On the downside, however, it meant that I got one of those bloody annoying cookie pop-ups when I attempted to post this reply. How do you folks back in the UK/EU not punch your screens in frustration, getting cookie nags on every single site? (Rhetorical question. NoScript/ABP/Pi-Hole here.)

          1. heyrick Silver badge

            Re: Ccea blocks me, why?

            They like France. Not blocked.

            I guess we get used to the cookie nags, though there are plugins that help. Given plenty of sites set cookies before asking, some UBlock filters to make them vanish can help too (well, I didn't consent if I didn't see it, not that I believe that anybody really takes it seriously; and you'll see the same advert providers asking the same question over and over because no, they don't care about our privacy, they're hoping to annoy us to the point we accept all the crap (at which point they won't keep on asking)). Best idea is to periodically flush the cookies.

            What annoys me is the number of American sites that say "Because of the GDPR, we're blocking your access to our site blah blah blah". A simple proxy gets around that, but it's a bigger pain in the arse then clicking away the pop-ups. At least the Baltimore Sun is now available again. It only took 'em half a decade.

            1. Expat-Cat

              Re: Ccea blocks me, why?

              Just a nitpick, and I know you were "quoting" a US website, but the GDPR has no requirement relating to cookies that causes this kind of behaviour. The ePrivacy Directive of 2002 holds this responsibility!

          2. ChoHag Silver badge

            Re: Ccea blocks me, why?

            > How do you folks back in the UK/EU not punch your screens in frustration

            Turn off javascript.

      2. Rod.h

        Re: Ccea blocks me, why?

        Add Australia to the ip ban

  4. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    FAIL

    "thankfully these data errors are incredibly infrequent"

    Yes. I'm sure that is quite reassuring for the people who do become victims of such errors.

    They undoubtedly console themselves by thinking how absolutely infrequent such errors are.

    Especially when the error is brought to light, and police forces continue to confuse them for months afterwards.

    1. David 132 Silver badge
      Pint

      Re: "thankfully these data errors are incredibly infrequent"

      Can sympathise. At my former home in the UK, there was a phantom record on the TV licencing database for my address, but with a postcode ending in a different letter (for example, W1A 8QZ rather than W1A 8QB).

      Which meant that every couple of months, I'd get a nastygram from the TVL people threatening me with all sorts of things for not having a licence. I'd call them up, read them my licence number, tell them about the phantom near-duplicate address, get a verbal apology and a promise to fix it, and then... repeat.

      What was funny was watching how the letters would escalate in nastiness, from "How can we help you get a licence?" to "You need to buy a licence now", to "Not having a licence is an offence, chummy", to "We intend to prosecute you any moment now". And if ignored, they'd just reset back to the good-cop one, beginning the escalation all over again.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: "thankfully these data errors are incredibly infrequent"

        There's no point in arguing Mr Buttle - the TV Licencing Agency never makes mistakes

      2. Scott 26

        Re: "thankfully these data errors are incredibly infrequent"

        "Ahhh - the old 'eat the telly before I can nick ya' trick"

      3. munnoch Bronze badge

        Re: "thankfully these data errors are incredibly infrequent"

        In my experience the nastygrams arrive once a month regular as clockwork during periods when I don't have (because I don't need) a license with increasing proportions of red on the envelope.

        They never follow through on their loosely veiled threats to send in the Storm Troopers. Mainly because they can't without a court order and a police officer to accompany them at the time of the visit (to prevent a possible breach of the peace) so its just not economical.

        There are lots of other things in life I don't need, but I don't have to go out of my way to prove why I don't need them to prevent threats arriving in the post. Horrible, sad system, enforced by horrible, sad Capita. A stain on the fine reputation of the BBC.

    2. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: "thankfully these data errors are incredibly infrequent"

      " "thankfully these data errors are incredibly infrequent"

      Yes. I'm sure that is quite reassuring for the people who do become victims of such errors."

      Especially those that get an oh dark thirty bang on the door and a half dozen shouting morons crushing into their house (and a year of trying to get reimbursed for the damage).

  5. Andy Non Silver badge
    FAIL

    Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

    I went to Boots opticians for an eye test, having not used them for a number of years. Surprisingly they found my record on their computer system from only a couple of years earlier. I was somewhat baffled, but the optician proceeded to test my sight based on "my" previous visit. I couldn't even read the first big letter at the top of the chart. I said there must be a mistake somewhere. He checked my address on their system and it was my address, but from somewhere I'd lived twenty years earlier, my ancient phone number and my date of birth but not the same medications, medical history or eye test results. The optician was convinced there must be someone living there now with the same name and DOB as me, which I thought highly unlikely. It seemed blindingly obvious to me that Boots had somehow merged two patient records into one. Not used Boots opticians since, wasn't impressed with their service either.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

      When I lived in the UK I regularly got letters about somebody's fertility treatment - who had the same Initial and Surname as me but an entirety opposite set of baby making bits.

      I was slightly tempted to turn up to one of the appointments

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

        My old ISP-supplied email address was [lastname]1@[isp].com. I received other folks' doctor's appointment reminders, invitations to join the patient portal, and even the electronic copies of their hunting and fishing licenses. Convincing the doctor's office and their patient portal company (two different companies) that they really, really needed to get he RIGHT email from the couple was largely fruitless. I think I eventually put in a HIPAA complaint, noting that I had tried multiple times to get them to correct the mistake but they kept sending me info about appointments anyway.

        (I didn't actually use that address for anything, but monitored it for ISP-sent messages.)

        Eventually moved ISPs, and the new one doesn't even come with an email. Though "conveniently" they allow text messages to "my" cell number - which is really the ISP-supplied 5G-to-wifi+ethernet modem, where they get displayed on a very small screen with a terrible interface, which I don't routinely look at anyway. The amount of spam I get at a number I've never given to anyone except the ISP (who provided the number in the first place) is staggering.

        1. munnoch Bronze badge

          Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

          We have a <surname>.org domain for our family email addresses. There is also <surname>.net that also seems to belong to a private individual.

          My son now doesn't even bother telling senders they want the .net guy of the same name and just forwards the messages on to the correct address.

          He seems to have a lot of correspondence about organising war grave visits so presumably the problem will correct itself before much longer...

        2. jdiebdhidbsusbvwbsidnsoskebid Silver badge

          Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

          Not quite as dramatic but local doctor related: our landline telephone number is identical to a local doctor surgery, except for one displaced digit on the keypad. Back when we had a landline we often got calls intended for the doctors.

          Sometimes I answered them and told people they had the wrong number and what the right number is. Usually they were apologetic but one lady rang me back straight away and insisted she had the right number. I think someone somewhere was repeatedly giving out the wrong number.

          We frequently got calls from a "District nurse" leaving messages quite specifically asking for the doctor to call them back asap because they were with Mr Smith right now and they think he really does need to see the doctor quite soon. Another time a distressed person was pleading into our answerphone for the doctor to call them as their husband was in a bad way and she was desperately worried.

          Sally there was nothing we could do, we told the surgery a few times, but the calls kept coming. Eventually we changed the answerphone message to "this is not the doctors, the number you want is...", then later unplugged the landline phone as no longer needed.

          1. Terry 6 Silver badge

            Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

            Sometimes I answered them and told people they had the wrong number and what the right number is. Usually they were apologetic but one lady rang me back straight away and insisted she had the right number. I think someone somewhere was repeatedly giving out the wrong number.

            Ah yes, as a kid a GP on our road had the same surname and almost the same phone number. Respectively CHE 6479 and 7964 I think.

            We didn't get too many calls for them. But some of the ones we did get would indeed try again often two or three times, and some could be very nasty when we politely told them we weren't the right number each time. We didn't want to be nasty, because there might be a really sick person.

            In hindsight, I'm wondering if that's where my largely negative view of humanity comes from.

      2. Norfolk N Chance

        Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

        I suspect you'd be quite surprised at the official response these days!

    2. Terry 6 Silver badge

      Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

      Boots, when I last used them a long tme ago, seemed to build their business using locums and short term staff.

    3. Headley_Grange Silver badge

      Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

      I got a couple of Boots opticians letters for someone else sent to me a few years ago. I've never been to Boots opticians, and I know all the owners of my house going back to 1983 and it wasn't any of them, so maybe Boots are just a bit rubbish.

      .

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

        "so maybe Boots are just a bit rubbish."

        They're trying to "leverage their customer database potential" to bring in more business.

        When that sort of thing happens to me, I let them know they just lost my business, forever. I find that sort of thing creepy which is why I never give a store any information such as an email address or use the code on my receipt to enter a giveaway contest for a prize I'll never win. The receipt thing is really bad. Not only do they have the details of that transaction, they get to fill in the blanks they don't get if you've used plastic to make the purchase.

    4. wub
      WTF?

      Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

      When I was a university student, I received a notice that I was being charged for books that were way, way overdue. From one of the campus libraries that I did not previously know existed. The titles were in German, a fine language that I never got around to learning.

      So I found out where the library was, and took my letter in to try and explain that it wasn't me. The librarian said, "Oh, when we look up the checkout information, sometimes the system gives us a 'magic' number that does not match any library patron's card. So we just pick the next nearest library card number and fine that person."

      They rescinded the fine against me, but I'm sure they went back to the list, and picked the next nearest match...

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

        Just must be done. If the recipient of the justice matches the perpetrator that's a bonus

        1. David 132 Silver badge
          Happy

          Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

          Hello, Captain Findthee Swing!

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

        One of the databases I use at work does something weird/similar. You enter the device number and if it's not in the database it shows the nearest one instead of a Nor Found error. That caught me out a few times in the early days of using it :-)

        1. MachDiamond Silver badge

          Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

          "One of the databases I use at work does something weird/similar. You enter the device number and if it's not in the database it shows the nearest one instead of a Nor Found error. "

          That's sounds mad. Instead of returning a not found error, the system is compounding problems and not giving feedback that some dorf just fat-fingered an entry.

    5. Nifty Silver badge

      Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

      "The optician was convinced there must be someone living there now with the same name and DOB as me"

      Did you suggest he should have gone to Specsavers?

    6. munnoch Bronze badge

      Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

      I was in Toolstation the other day ordering over the counter. They asked for my postcode and surname and said are you "John". No, I'm not, "oh, we have two people with your surname in your postcode".

      Might not seem that surprising but I'm rural and there are only 8 houses in my postcode (two of which are me because someone changed the name of the house ages ago but both names are still in the address db). So apparently John with the same surname as me lives two houses away. Haven't checked (I'm not a people person). Its far from being a common surname too.

      So I guess postcode+surname is more of a hash than a unique identifier. Wonder if the other bloke has a trade account though...

    7. Potty Professor
      Facepalm

      Re: Similar mistakes not limited to public sector

      I was once sent by my doctor to have a lung capacity test as I was having slight breathing difficulties due to Hayfever. The clinician who conducted the test remarked that I had almost doubled my lung capacity in the five years or so since the last test, and why was I worried about the results? I was surprised, because I had not had a test before, so I asked if I could see the previous test results. I pointed out that the details of the previous test were for a 70 year old man, and I was well under that age now, so it couldn't have been me. Turned out it was my father, whose name is very similar to mine, and had since died of Emphysema. Oops!

  6. My-Handle

    Not the first time...

    ...that WMP have performed this particular trick. My dad was arrested once, on Easter weekend in or around 2005.

    The cops had nabbed someone in Staines for something or other, took the guy's name, DoB and address and let him go. Come his day in court, he didn't show up. The address he'd given turned out to be false. So they looked up the name and DoB in the Dept of Work & Pensions database (which they shouldn't have done, and ignoring that he'd lied once already) and came up with my dad. Then issued a warrant for his arrest. Because they'd knocked on my dad's door on Raster weekend, they were going to hold him until the next working day (tues) because "he'd already skipped bail once".

    Eventually, the duty sargeant released him on common sense grounds, but advised he don't leave town for a few days.

    Ironically, the police in Staines had a photo of their actual suspect, but never thought to send it with the warrant.

    An absolute shit-show, start to finish

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Not the first time...

      I'm assuming Raster weekend wasn't a politically incorrect 80s term for the Notting Hill carnival?

      1. My-Handle

        Re: Not the first time...

        No, it's a little-celebrated public holiday in the UK in recognition of some poor tit with poor mobile phone typing skills.

        Co-incidentally, it takes place over Easter.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Not the first time...

          On Sunday 25th February Foden's Band became Northern Brass Band Champions.

          Just the day that Facebook decided that "Fodens" should be autocorrected to "Fuck".

          Fixed the next day!

      2. An_Old_Dog Silver badge

        Re: Not the first time...

        No, it's the weekend when people fire up their old cathode-ray-tube-based television sets and watch programs recorded on video tape cassettes. Or on LaserDiscs.

    2. David 132 Silver badge

      Re: Not the first time...

      > Not the first time that WMP have performed this particular trick.

      Yes, I was going to say... weren't WMP notorious in the 80s/early 90s for being as bent as a 9-bob note and about as competent as Inspector Clouseau?

      1. heyrick Silver badge

        Re: Not the first time...

        Given the news in recent months, that description could apply to far far too many of them (but especially the Met).

  7. GoneFission
    Devil

    Clearly they need access to more personal data, location, habits and behavior patterns to prevent cases like this going forward. Maybe Meta or Alphabet can offer them some nice data sets at a friendship rate that police can then use to accurately identify individuals, or whatever else they happen to consider doing with this information.

    1. Andy Non Silver badge
      Coat

      Or put a microchip in each person's neck.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        That's why we need ID cards - to protect the children

  8. Mike 137 Silver badge

    Conflicting aims?

    it should "maintain relevant records of its processing activities and take steps to improve governance measures"

    Interestingly. these recommendations and the relevant provisions of the Data Protection and Digital Information Bill are at odds, in that, by paring down the record keeping requirement, the Bill aims to minimise the "red tape" associated with detailed record keeping inherited from the GDPR.

  9. Eclectic Man Silver badge

    Oliver Dowden has the solution - NOT

    See: https://www.theregister.com/2024/03/01/uk_gov_generative_ai_plan/

    "The UK government will trial large language models to help ministers analyze and draft documents as part of a push to overhaul public services using AI.

    In a speech on Thursday, deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden called the technology a potential "silver bullet" to reduce the burden of routine admin tasks and make civil servants more productive.

    ...

    More worryingly, perhaps, is Dowden’s idea of crime-prevention algorithms that could "direct police to where they are most needed" and "spot patterns of criminality to discover culprits quicker than ever.""

    God help us all.

    1. Alien Doctor 1.1

      Re: Oliver Dowden has the solution - NOT

      I would suggest they start with Westminster and the House of Commons.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Oliver Dowden has the solution - NOT

        >I would suggest they start with Westminster and the House of Commons.

        Start with EC1. There's no point in cracking down on shoplifting if there are billions in naughty stuff happening next door.

    2. spacecadet66

      Re: Oliver Dowden has the solution - NOT

      > In a speech on Thursday, deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden called the technology a potential "silver bullet" to reduce the burden of routine admin tasks and make civil servants more productive.

      I'm going to put this as politely as I can: what a fucking idiot.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Oliver Dowden has the solution - NOT

        How else do you make it deputy prime minister ?

      2. Terry 6 Silver badge

        Re: Oliver Dowden has the solution - NOT

        If, that's if, these LLMs/AIs had been knocking around for while and a minister had then proposed something like this it just might have some credibility. But when it's just the new latest buzz word that no one outside of the tech world had even heard of a few months ago, it can never be more than a load of bollocks.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: Oliver Dowden has the solution - NOT

          Not to mention that with the current state of LLMs, those poor civil servants will either be putting out more drivel at a higher rate, or much less output as they then have to read over everything the LLM produces to check if it is just drivel.

    3. MachDiamond Silver badge

      Re: Oliver Dowden has the solution - NOT

      "More worryingly, perhaps, is Dowden’s idea of crime-prevention algorithms that could "direct police to where they are most needed" and "spot patterns of criminality to discover culprits quicker than ever."""

      The thing is that the police on the street already know all of this. Talk with any copper that's been on the beat for a few years and they'll know most of the local F-ups by full name, their parents names, where they live, who they've fathered children on and what social diseases they have. They also know which local female of relaxed standards they've hooked up with when they see him driving her car. The trick is getting all of that knowledge into a database in a way that won't get banned.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Oliver Dowden has the solution - NOT

        1. Agreed: the local cops know all this.

        2. So, why do we need to put in the info into a database?

        1. Terry 6 Silver badge

          Re: Oliver Dowden has the solution - NOT

          Destruction of local policing for one.

        2. MachDiamond Silver badge

          Re: Oliver Dowden has the solution - NOT

          "2. So, why do we need to put in the info into a database?"

          So it can be shared. It can take years for a police officer to learn all of that info. Somebody new will get up to speed faster if they can look those sorts of things up and judges could use that information to make correct decisions about bail or releasing somebody on a personal recognizance bond. I've seen a few shows where some petty criminal who gets arrested at least once a month is on the catch/release program due to prosecutors never bothering to prosecute them. A judge might see a long arrest record with only a couple of minor convictions and believe a defense attorney that the person just gets picked on when in reality, the person is a career criminal and should be locked up. A load of unsolved cases might not happen in future while that person is banged up since it would be unlikely that they were being arrested for every crime they commit.

  10. tip pc Silver badge

    Thats ok then

    "thankfully these data errors are incredibly infrequent."

    Unless your the one getting your liberty infringed by the state who make it incredibly hard to rectify a fault in their data processing especially when they deliberately hide the data they hold on you from you.

    1. Andy Non Silver badge

      Re: Thats ok then

      Another data catastrophe that occurs now and then all over the world is if someone is accidentally or maliciously declared dead and the automatic data updates that follow... closure of bank accounts, cancellation of pension, benefits, credit rating, driver's licence, passport etc. Most organisations lack facilities or procedures to make someone "undead" causing considerable suffering to those affected while the bureaucrats just keep repeating "the computer says No".

      1. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: Thats ok then

        "Most organisations lack facilities or procedures to make someone "undead" causing considerable suffering to those affected while the bureaucrats just keep repeating "the computer says No"."

        The challenge is finding a way to turn all of that into a positive. Since your signature won't change, create and back date a Will leaving all of your worldly possessions to your new persona, who lives out of the country, spend some time debt free in a sunny location and apply for residency/citizenship to move home with a fresh set of papers. If you've been driving for some time, it shouldn't be too difficult to get your test again and pass with flying colors. Create a new and much better resume mostly with jobs in another country that would be hard to check and get a new job with higher pay. Yes, there's some things I glossed over, but..........

        1. keithpeter Silver badge
          Windows

          Re: Thats ok then

          The John Stonehouse / Clive Muldoon strategy did not work so well back in the day...

        2. PB90210 Bronze badge

          Re: Thats ok then

          "Since your signature won't change"

          When did you last sign something?

          I had enough trouble remembering the PIN associated with my swipe card that I use day-in-day-out on a 'foreign' door a while back... figuring out how to duplicate my own signature is a nightmare

          On the other hand, I once watched a woman sign a cheque by simple going left-right-left-right a few times leaving a thick line... she could have just used a thick felt tip to save time

          1. MachDiamond Silver badge

            Re: Thats ok then

            "When did you last sign something?"

            I wind up having to sign things often enough. I have a couple of businesses so there's always paperwork that requires a signature. I'm a real weirdo too. I don't digitally sign anything. When there is a need for me to sign something, I do it with a blue pen. "Wet" signature on paper. If I have to print something out and send it in, I do that. I could honestly stand up in front of a judge and claim never to have used a digital signature which might be a good thing in future and save boat loads of money, a lost house, etc.

      2. JPat
        Joke

        Re: Thats ok then

        "Most organisations lack facilities or procedures to make someone "undead" causing considerable suffering to those affected while the bureaucrats just keep repeating "the computer says No".

        Because it could bring on the Zombie Apocalypse.

  11. spacecadet66

    There are, in this year of our Lord 2024, IT systems keyed simply on first initial and last name. I know this because my wife happens to have the same first initial I do, and we've both gotten numerous official phone calls and letters meant for each other.

    1. Andy Non Silver badge

      I've been summoned to go for flu / covid jabs or random doctor's appointments only to find the appointments were for my wife, the surgery putting my phone number onto her record. To reinforce the confusion, text messages never state who they are intended for.

      1. Martin an gof Silver badge

        text messages never state who they are intended for.

        I have three mobile phones with Smarty. Bundling them together is great because there is a discount but when the messages come through "you have nearly used your data allowance this month" without either a name or even a phone number attached, it's somewhat difficult to know which user might need a top-up!

        M.

    2. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      In my small office of 20 people I have two "A. Singh" and would have two "M. Wang" if one didn't spell it Huang

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        I went to school with identical twins who both had the same first initial and no middle names. That caused enough issues even back then, 45 years ago when it was just "human error" and fairly easily fixed. I dread to think how fucked up it must be nowadays with computers involved. As we all know, it takes a computer to truly fuck things up.

        1. MachDiamond Silver badge

          " went to school with identical twins who both had the same first initial and no middle names."

          So the parents were civil servants? No rocket engineer would fail to give identical twins middle names and different ones at that.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Worse, their surname wasn't' a common surname, but was common as a first name, so on first meeting it could seem like you were being introduced to someone by first name, middle name...and left hanging waiting for the surname :-)

          2. WanderingHaggis

            There was a presenter on Scottish BBC who claimed that he went to school two children in the class were called Donny McCloud so the teacher to call roll would say Donny A and Donny B McCloud. Donny B stuck for the rest of his life.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          I was once in a class with a friend of mine, who shares the same first name and last initial (Let's say Bob O., and serious bonus points for catching the reference.) The teacher started out calling on "Bob", and either both or neither of us would answer. She then changed to "Bob O.", which worked as well, and finally just went with last names.

          1. David 132 Silver badge

            Bob? That's a funny name for a girl...

            (Also a reference. Albeit a less obscure one.)

            1. F. Frederick Skitty Silver badge

              Does she have a tongue like an eel and like the taste of a man's tonsils?

              1. David 132 Silver badge
                Happy

                "I'm beginning to see why the Suffragette movement want the vote."

  12. HobartTas

    Does any organization ever have any rules in place for differentiating between two people who share the same first, middle and last name as well as date of birth? Or do they just hope for the best and assume cases like this will never happen? Perhaps if they do occur we should encourage the affected individuals to add additional middle names and always quote them in their entirety e.g. King Charles is Charles Phillip Arthur George and is not likely to ever be confused with anyone else on the planet.

    When I worked for Centrelink Australia we had a case where someone applied for either an Invalid or Age Pension and the first thing we did is check if there is an old previous record for the person and reuse that rather than create a new record so we don't have duplicates floating around confusing people, anyway we noticed that there was an old cancelled record in another state and promptly reused that record but this confused the new person as they got a letter to say their details had been transferred but then they contacted us to say that they never had any previous dealings with us whatsoever and then when we started looking into it further things like their income tax file numbers were different and it slowly became clear that these were two different people and we had to reverse what we did and I'm not sure how it was eventually all sorted out, or how it was setup so that this didn't occur again other than perhaps having a message on each persons record that flashes up when you access it to say that there are two identical people with the same details and to exercise extreme care when accessing their records.

    Had the old cancelled record been active and current we would have contacted the applicant to ask what was going on with their fresh application as you can't have two income support payments at the same time but being cancelled and in the past then that didn't really raise any red flags at the time.

    Even simple stuff like getting employers to fill out forms in respect of people was a hassle especially if you had say George Bush Snr and George Bush Jnr and you'd quote the Snr or Jnr and the date of birth as well on the questionnaire but the employer would only be familiar with the name they had as the employee and would just ignore the Snr/Jnr and DOB and happily quote the details which being for the other person would screw us up when we got the form back with the obviously wrong details on them.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      In almost every country there's a clear need for a unique citizen identifier instead of relying on given names and hope. Things like tax reference numbers, social security, or health service numbers are sometimes used his way, but often don't work very well when misapplied (eg US social security numbers). Governments need to stop dicking around and centralise citizen identity and record keeping. That will immediately get a lot of people's backs up, but the reality is governments are already keep tabs on us - just badly. This idea of a unique citizen number already exists in a good number of countries and can work very well, and be kept out of the hands of the private sector if there's the will. So it works in say Estonia, Ireland, Austria and is associated with competent digital administration, whereas it is something of an anathema in the UK, Oz, NZ, Germany.

      1. Herring`

        The thing is, in the UK, there is a lot of resistance to this sort of thing - ID cards etc. Because we don't trust our governments not to abuse the data for mass surveillance - like were you at a farmer's protest (good) or a climate change protest (bad).

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          But that's OK cos we are about to replace the evil incumbent authoritarian government with the new enlightened freedom loving people-friendly opposition.

          This statement does not have an expiry date

          1. Richard 12 Silver badge

            Powers and data must be limited for safety

            Even if you trust your current government not to abuse data and powers, nobody can trust that no future government will ever decide that $attribute is unwanted and start rounding you up.

            It's one of the utter insanities of the current Tory "government". They are continually and repeatedly trying to push through powers that the next Labour Government could use to literally lock them all up, or perhaps deport rather a lot of senior Conservatives to Rwanda.

            Meanwhile, Trump is trying to give Biden total immunity for any crimes he might feel inclined to commit in the next few months.

            Betting your life that nobody will ever abuse things you give them seems really stupid to me.

            1. Herring`

              Re: Powers and data must be limited for safety

              As has been pointed out, if Trump were successful in his attempt to prove presidential immunity, that would give Biden the green light to send a Seal team down to Mar-a-Lardo to take him out.

          2. Norfolk N Chance

            Meet the new boss...

            Same as the old boss.

            Yeeeeeeeaaahhhh!

      2. An_Old_Dog Silver badge

        ... and be kept out of the hands of the private sector if there's the will.

        I can promise you that that money will change hands, and that the data will be transferred to the private sector.

    2. David 132 Silver badge
      Happy

      >Does any organization ever have any rules in place for differentiating between two people who share the same first, middle and last name as well as date of birth?

      Tangentially related, but I used to work for a company that differentiated temporary (contract) employees by giving them the middle initial X.

      So their email address would be something like JoeX.Bloggs@contoso.com

      Took me a while after starting there to figure out why so many people were apparently named Xavier :)

    3. MachDiamond Silver badge

      "Does any organization ever have any rules in place for differentiating between two people who share the same first, middle and last name as well as date of birth?"

      Yes, the new modern serial number for people is their telephone number. Now that people have mobs and keep they numbers for years and years, it's not that dissimilar to the numbers tattooed on concentration camp prisoners in WWII. People will happily fill in their phone number on a form handed to them on a clipboard.

      It's not just the same full name, but here has to be a rule if names are shortened in any way such as first initial, last name. At that point Paul Cook becomes P. Cook which would be the same for Patty, Patrick, Penny, etc. Names seem to run in cycles too so for a few years Kimberly might be popular so there will loads of Kim's. One doesn't see girls being named Myrtle these days, but it could come back and when it does, there will be a bunch. The thing is there won't be any of them with the same phone number with so many people having their own phone number rather than using a single line for an entire household.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Unique IDs

      [A] Does any organization ever have any rules in place for differentiating between two people who share ... [B] Or do they just hope for the best and assume cases like this will never happen?

      The correct answer is [B], because for far too many people, the creative thinking involved in coming up with an effective differentiation scheme and corrective procedures is just too much hard work. Or, they're just lazy-asses.

      Yours Truly, {8c4c198a-b072-4a0b-b637-e63aaac9d51c}

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Unique IDs

        Unfortunately from "simple" md5 through sha1, to the dizzy lengths of guid/uuid there is no guarantee of uniqueness. Just probability.

        1. Number6

          Re: Unique IDs

          That's because they're not all assigned by a single master authority. If you're the only one issuing the numbers then you can guarantee that they're unique. Except human error will invariably transpose a couple of digits somewhere.

          1. An_Old_Dog Silver badge
            Joke

            Re: Unique IDs

            Well, I got mine off the Internet (https://guidgenerator.com/), so I'm sure MINE are unique!

            1. MachDiamond Silver badge

              Re: Unique IDs

              I got a new number this year, my IPN (International Performer Number). Now I can be properly credited for banging on some drums on a recording. Just another identifier to add to a list that keeps getting longer. I doubt I'll memorize my IPN as it gets transferred via my mobile when I sign into a session or play a live gig that is being recorded (not massively frequent happenings).

    5. munnoch Bronze badge

      I have two middle names.

      One is common, the other was made up by my grandfather when he arrived in Scotland by taking his Italian surname and sticking "Mc" in front of it. Presumably to blend in with the locals. To compound the confusion his Italian name also started with a C and at some point he decided to drop that C and make it McA**** instead of McC****, I got the later version.

      I'm pretty sure I'm unique.

      Whilst we're on the subject when I lived in Japan you often had to fill out official forms where the name field would be made up of a small number of boxes into which you drew the kanji characters that you went by. Most Japanese surnames are made up of 2 characters, sometimes more or less but nearly always 2. Given names tend to be the same but can be a bit longer if the are written in hiragana (females often are, last character ko obviously...). No one has middle names. So you're generally looking at 4 or 5 characters tops.

      My full name when converted to katakana would come to some 15 characters, which pretty much blew the limit on most forms. The vehicle registration people had a supplemental page they could employ to cover this situation.

      Japan (and a few other Asian counties) have the concept of the family registry which traces your family tree backwards. Its held at the ward (council) office local to wherever your branch of the family started out from and it *never* moves. If you need an official document to confirm you are who you say you are you need to trot off to the ward office holding your record and request it. Which is a tad inconvenient when you live on the other side of the world...

    6. Ptol

      "Does any organization ever have any rules in place for differentiating between two people who share the same first, middle and last name as well as date of birth? "

      Yes, I've implemented systems to automatically identify entry details against a person on the database. The approach I follow is this:

      1. Have a long set of questions that will filter people such as first name, year of birth, postcode, etc...

      2. Have a minimum number of questions that must be asked.

      3. Work along the list of questions till there is only one entry in the database that matches.

      4. Then ask one more question.

      Its the most robust approach I've found sofar.

  13. Tron Silver badge

    They visited the school.

    I hope they didn't interfere with the 'learnings' that were happening there. Learnings matter. As Tony Blair put it, Learnings, Learnings, Learnings.

    School visits are a worry. UK police have been criticised recently for the number of times they have strip searched kids. American schools have a 'shelter in place' alert for shooters. We have a 'hide in the cupboard' alert for when the old Bill turn up.

    Met police admit overusing powers to strip-search children after IOPC inquiry.

    https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/sep/14/four-met-officers-face-disciplinary-hearings-over-schoolgirl-strip-search

    I don't suppose they have a 'Notes' field on police software. Maybe there will be a 5-year £500m add on contract up for grabs to sort that out. Still time for outsourcers to cosy up to a Tory MP before they become extinct at the next election.

  14. Nameless Dread

    DOBs on multiple occasions

    " ... and merged the records of the individuals that share the same name and date of birth on multiple occasions during 2000, 2021 and 2022."

    Remind me to change my DOB on multiple occasions, just in case I share it with Zuck or someone. Once would be enough, shirley.

  15. Michael Hoffmann Silver badge
    Unhappy

    Been there done that

    Many many years ago, while still living in the US, case of same name, same birthday. The other guy had a rap sheet as long as your arm, all violent, and fugitive from the law. Why do I know that? Because for some reason that guy came up *with all that info* on a friggin DMV computer screen, where I could see it as well!

    The DMV drone, probably already seeing themselves on the evening news as hero of the hour, just about started calling police officers.

    The much-maligned social security number - and the fact that we weren't even born in the same country, never mind state, eventually came to the rescue. After just about yelling at them to look at what was staring at them on the screen. But it couldn't be that there could be a mix up, or coincidence, and that I maybe was NOT that wanted person.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Doppelgänger

    I have an almost exact email address to another person. It’s a portmanteau of my name and my wife’s name. Turns out someone with near exact names did the same thing with the same ISP. He runs a business and buy loads of stuff over the phone. I have received many of his invoices and order/delivery advices. I know everything about the guy now. We’ve even chatted online and exchanged jokes about who should pay the invoices…

  17. AndrueC Silver badge
    Meh

    That's a little worrying. There is (or was) a chap with the same name as me and the same approximate age living in my relatively small town. I found out when I went for my first 'over 40s MoT' several years ago. There was another chap in the small waiting room and when the nurse called out my name we both stood up. She had to double check her notes and ask the month of birth to differentiate.

    I think I have slightly more confidence in the NHS not confusing us since despite the complexity of their systems (I have a fair bit of technical knowledge on these) our NHS Numbers should keep us safely separate. But the Police..not so much.

    He attended the MoT wearing a pink shirt and a tie though so what that says about his proclivity for crime is uncertain. Clearly not a rough and tumble scrote but management... um.

    1. Andy Non Silver badge

      I had a similar experience recently at my doctor's surgery. I had to go in for an ECG. A nurse appeared in the waiting room, there were only two or three people there, she made eye contact with me and queried "Andy?" I followed her into a room and she was about to take a blood sample when I pointed out I was there for an ECG. She just said "OK, I'll go find the machine". A minute later a different nurse came in followed by another patient who was wondering why his nurse had attached heart sensing cables all over his chest. I said to him "Is your name Andy as well?". Yep, he was only in for a blood test.

  18. iwi

    not just the police

    I lived in a house where road name and house number were the same as another house in the same local authority area in a different road with the same name about 2 miles away. The man who lived in the other house also had same name as me (unfortunately for him). He was quite ill by all accounts. We had 3 ambulances on 3 separate occasions turn up to take 'me' to hospital. So the London Ambulance Service clearly had dodgy data and never bothered fixing it. Whether the resulting delays getting him to hospital had anything to do with his death, I will never know. But when he died, the council then cancelled my council tax account, writing to me to tell me that they had done it because, well, I had died apparently. So even name and street address aren't unique, pretty sure he didn't share my date of birth though.

  19. Splatterplatter

    I'm Brian, No, I am...

    Had this too, police at door looking for Ms XXX at this address, turns out its same address, different town, I mean, we live on the High Street, must be unique! Other town is 8 miles away but has a similar postcode. Following this, we got parcels, mail & yet more visits from the boys in blue.

    We met Ms XXX as she popped round to collect her parcels/mail after I sent her a postcard...which got to her no problem. This all went away after about a year or so, I think she moved away.

    Latest wheeze is Amazon/DPD etc delivering to our back door claiming it is a house 4 doors down, it's been a hassle as they dont have a doorbell to ring, so just leave the parcel, sometimes in heavy rain, on the ground. I managed to catch one in the act one night and he showed me the sat-nav located our back door as the delivery point, he said he would put in a change request with the sat nav folk.

    Finally, going back some 40 years, I used to get the university results of a person on the same course as me at Uni, we were doing the same course, same year and had the same name. I'd have kept it secret, but his marks were lower than mine (or were they.....).

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