The nine most terrifying words in the English language

Post updated on Monday 26 January

“I’m from the government and I’m here to help”

In 1986 President Ronald Reagan quipped that these nine words are the most terrifying in the English language.

Well, as the state begins to harvest huge quantities of personal data and to build all-encompassing databases, another nine word phrase is about to strike far more terror when you hear it.

The state has come late to the big data game but it is now making up for lost time and is embracing it with enthusiasm. The scale of each new project is matched only by the controversy generated when the public learns how their personal data will be obtained and processed – usually after decisions have been made and the project is about to be rolled out.

We have Irish Water and PPSNs, the Irish genealogy database which published the birth records of the entire population on the web and proposals for data sharing and governance legislation to facilitate the sharing of personal data between state bodies.

Unfortunately the enthusiasm for collecting personal data has so far not been matched with a similar effort to comply with data protection law. Many projects are developed without privacy impact assessment and are presented as faits accomplis leading to inevitable clashes with the public and the independent Data Protection Commissioner.

Most recently comments by the Minister for Education that the Data Protection Commissioner was satisfied with the Department of Education’s plan to build the Primary Online Database lead to the Commissioner being forced to publicly contradict the Minister indicating that discussions were ongoing.

So what nine words could possibly strike terror into the hearts of a population that survived the crash of the Celtic Tiger? Well they are:

I’m from the government and your data is anonymised

From recent reports it mow appears that the Department of Education is discussing anonymisation of the Primary Online Database with the Data Protection Commissioner.

Well someone should ask Mayo TD Michelle Mulherin how anonymisation is working for her.

The Sunday Times reports that Ms Mulherin was the only TD in the Irish parliament on the dates when expensive phone calls were made to a mobile number in Kenya. The details of the calls were released under the Freedom of Information Act in an “anonymised” database. While it must be said the fact that Ms Mulherin was the only TD present on those occasions does not prove she made the calls – the reporting in the press is now raising the possibility that it was her.

From a data protection point of view this is a perfect example of the difficulty with anonymisation. Data protection rules apply to personal data which is defined as data relating to a living individual who is or can be identified from the data or from the data in conjunction with other information. Anonymisation is often cited as a means for processing data outside the scope of data protection law but as Ms Mulherin has discovered individuals can be identified using supposedly anonymised data when analysed in conjunction with other data.

In the case of the mysterious calls to Kenya even though the released information was “anonymised” to protect the privacy of public representatives, the phone log used in combination with the attendance record of public representatives and information on social media was sufficient to identify individuals and at least raise evidence of association between individuals and certain phone calls. While this may be well and good in terms of accounting for abuses of the phone service it also has worrying implications for the ability of public representatives to conduct their business in private.

The bottom line is that anonymisation is very difficult if not impossible as Ms Mulherin has learned to her cost. It certainly is a lot more complex than simply removing names and other identifying features from a single dataset. The more data that there is and the more diverse the sources the greater the risk that individuals can be identified from supposedly anonymised datasets.

In fact true anonymisation is a hard problem mathematically and to make a claim of anonymisation a data controller should be required to provide formal proof that anonymisation has been achieved. I suspect this is impossible in all non-trivial cases.

The Open Data Institute in the UK has published a truly excellent presentation from Ross Anderson who takes the view that it is impossible.

Update: The Irish Independent is reporting this morning the Ms Mulherin has admitted making the calls to Kenya but that they were not personal calls.

The ECB Letter to Brian Lenihan

Almost three years to the day after its release was requested a letter sent by the European Central Bank to then Finance Minister  Brian Lenihan has been leaked to the Irish Times and is now in the public domain.

The letter confirms what was long suspected – that the ECB had threatened not to support the Irish economy unless it entered the troika bailout programme and agreed to recapitalise and guarantee any Irish bank that needed such support. The leak comes just before the governing council of the ECB meets to decide whether it should now officially make this correspondence public. The indications are that it will.

In early November 2011 journalist Gavin Sheridan made an official request to the ECB for access to a copy of the letter. The ECB refused on the basis that the publication of its contents would undermine Eurozone monetary policy and would threaten the financial stability of Ireland and other Eurozone countries. You can see the full exchange here but between the jigs and the reels the ECB held firm and refused access.

Working with Gavin we then appealed to the European Ombudsman complaining that the ECB had wrongly refused access on a number of grounds. You can read the full submission here.

In March 2014 the Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, issued a recommendation for a friendly solution saying that the ECB was justified in not releasing the letter in 2011 but given that the Eurozone and the Irish economy were no longer under imminent threat it should release the letter in the interests of transparency.

Unfortunately the ECB maintained its position that even in March 2014 the contents of the letter that are copied below would undermine Eurozone monetary policy and threaten the financial stability of Ireland. Well now we can see for ourselves if that is true. Of course the publication today now begs the question of what has changed in the eight months since O’Reilly’s recommendation.

There is one other loose end – two further letters which the ECB denies that it holds. These are letters dated 4 and 12 November 2012 both from Trichet to Lenihan. We know they exist because they were reported on by Stephen Collins in the Irish Times and Dan O’Brien in his excellent radio report “Bailout Boys Go to Dublin” (at 5:07). At the time the ECB denied holding them and the Ombudsman declined to investigate the issue on the grounds that they did not form part of the original request. It will be interesting to see if these letters now emerge either form the ECB or the Irish Department of Finance.

Here’s the text as reported today by the Irish Times



Jean Claude TRICHET


Mr Brian Lenihan

Tánaiste and Minister of Finance

Government Buildings

Upper Merrion Street

Dublin 2, Ireland

Frankfurt, 19 November 2010

Dear Minister,

As you are aware from my previous letter dated 15 October, the provision of Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) by the Central Bank of Ireland, as by any other national central bank of the Eurosystem, is closely monitored by the Governing Council of the European Central Bank (ECB) as it may interfere with the objectives and tasks of the Eurosystem and may contravene the prohibition of monetary financing.

Therefore, whenever ELA is provided in significant amounts, the Governing Council needs to assess whether it is appropriate to impose specific conditions in order to protect the integrity of our monetary policy. In addition, in order to ensure compliance with the prohibition of monetary financing, it is essential to ensure that ELA recipient institutions continue to be solvent.

As I indicated at the recent Eurogroup meeting, the exposure of the Eurosystem and of the Central Bank of Ireland vis-a-vis Irish financial institutions has risen significantly over the past few months to levels that we consider with great concern. Recent developments can only add to these concerns. As Patrick Honohan knows, the Governing Council has been asked yesterday to authorise new liquidity assistance, which it did.

But all these considerations have implications for the assessment of the solvency of the institutions which are currently receiving ELA. It is the position of the Governing Council that it is only if we receive in writing a commitment from the Irish government vis-a-vis the Eurosystem on the four following points that we can authorise further provisions of ELA to Irish financial institutions: 1) The Irish government shall send a request for financial support to the Eurogroup; 2) The request shall include the commitment to undertake decisive actions in the areas of fiscal consolidation, structural reforms and financial sector restructuring, in agreement with the European Commission, the International Monetary Fund and the ECB; 3) The plan for the restructuring of the Irish financial sector shall include the provision of the necessary capital to those Irish banks needing it and will be funded by the financial resources provided at the European and international level to the Irish government as well as by financial means currently available to the lrish government, including existing cash reserves of the Irish government; 4) The repayment of the funds provided in the form of ELA shall be fully guaranteed by the Irish government, which would ensure the payment of immediate compensation to the Central Bank of Ireland in the event of missed payments on the side of the recipient institutions.

I am sure that you are aware that a swift response is needed before markets open next week, as evidenced by recent market tensions which may further escalate, possibly in a disruptive way, if no concrete action is taken by the Irish government on the points I mention above.

Besides the issue of the provision of ELA, the Governing Council of the ECB is extremely concerned about the very large overall credit exposure of the Eurosystem towards the Irish banking system. The Governing Council constantly monitors the credit granted to the banking system not only in Ireland but in all euro area countries, and in particular the size of Eurosystem exposures to individual banks, the financial soundness of these banks and the collateral they provide to the Eurosystem.

The assessment of the Governing Council on the appropriateness of the Eurosystem’s exposure to Irish banks will essentially depend on rapid and decisive progress in the formulation of a concrete action plan in the areas which have been mentioned in this letter and in its subsequent implementation.

With kind regards