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Why does DEFRA need to snoop on the Electoral Register and on unlisted landline telephone details to provide Flood Warnings ?

Why exactly does DEFRA need to snoop on the Electoral Register and on unlisted landline telephone details to provide Flood Warnings ?

Security fears over flood alert

* Jo Revill
* The Observer,
* Sunday January 6 2008

Environment officials are asking for access to thousands of ex-directory phone numbers so that they can alert people when their homes are in danger of being flooded.

However, following lapses in data security, with the government criticised over missing computer disks containing details on millions of child benefit claimants, there may be nervousness about allowing the Environment Agency access to numbers.

Nearly half of households with a landline in the UK now have an ex-directory number. The government's information commissioner, Richard Thomas, will make the decision whether to allow the agency, which is overseeing the UK's floods strategy, the right to have them.

Baroness Young, the agency's chief executive, said: 'Being able to communicate with people fast is really important when it comes to flooding. It may be serious enough to be talking about evacuation. Flash flooding can happen very quickly.'

Very true, however, the Environment Agency does not provide any Surface Water Flash Flood Warnings at all, something which may not even be technically possible without a massive investment in a new sensor infrastructure, covering areas well away from actual rivers etc.

    Flood Warnings


    A flood watch alerts people that we are expecting minor flooding to low-lying land and minor roads. Flood Watches are issued to the media (who broadcast to the public) and directly to people who have an operational response such as your local authority, farmers and the emergency services.

    Most members of the public do not need to receive a Flood Watch directly, however you can register to receive Flood Watches if you feel they will be useful for you. Please be aware that they can be issued at any time of the day or night and are not warnings of flooding to your property.

    It is not our responsibility to provide flood forecasting or warning for surface water flooding."

More than 55,000 homes and businesses flooded last summer in the worst deluges since 1766. They caused huge disruption in Yorkshire, Gloucestershire and Herefordshire, with transport links, schools, power and water supplies hit. Thousands were left without drinking water and £3bn of damage was done.

No early-warning system was available for 35,000 homes. Although the agency has a flood warnings system, only 41 per cent of those eligible to receive the free service, because they live in an area with a high risk of flooding, have signed up for it.

A review into last summer's floods, carried out by Sir Michael Pitt, recommended that there had to be a better system for delivering flood warnings, despite the extra costs.

He called on the government to grant the Environment Agency access to its full electoral roll, including phone numbers.

Sir Michael Pitt's interim review of the 2007 summer floods, is available as a series of .pdf files from the Cabinet Office website.

Learning lessons from the 2007 floods. An independent review by Sir Michael Pitt (.pdf 165 pages 6.2 Mb)

This review appears to be full of mostly common sense recommendations. Most of these e.g. sending people to physically "knock on doors" at every building within the predicted flood zones, are so obvious, that it beggars belief why they have not already have been implemented years ago .

N.B. we cannot see any mention of the "electoral roll" in Sir Michael Pitt's report. Perhaps the Observer has been briefed verbally by someone else.

Ex-Directory landline telephone details

Urgent Recommendation number 11 (out of 15), which seems to be the basis for the Observer article

7.9 Along with awareness campaigns, the Environment Agency has a pilot scheme to automatically register eligible households and premises for flood warnings unless they opt out. The question has been raised as to whether it is legally permitted for such an 'opt out' scheme to be rolled out more widely, for example to ex-directory telephone numbers. This needs urgent clarification and the Review hopes a solution can be found.

REC 11 – The Review recommends that the Environment Agency should work urgently with telecommunications companies, consulting the Information Commissioner as necessary to facilitate the roll-out of 'opt-out' telephone flood warning schemes to all homes and businesses liable to flooding, including homes with ex-directory numbers.

How would this materially effect the effectiveness of Flood Warnings anyway, given that this review itself states:

7.4 The Environment Agency’s flood warning system has limited levels of public uptake. In the regions affected by the summer 2007 floods, only around 20 per cent of people invited had joined the Flood Warnings Direct service


In addition, the Agency’s analysis shows that around 27 per cent of telephone calls made under the Flood Warnings Direct system were not picked up by recipients.

There is no justification for the Environment Agency being granted access to Communications Traffic Data regarding subscriber name and address and telephone details.details

It is not impossible for the Telecomms companies (mostly British Telecom) to provide an anonymous list of landline phone numbers within, say the affected Flood Risk Warning Zone areas, without any personal data being put at risk by letting a central Government Agency get their insecure mitts on it.

If HMRC cannot be trusted with protecting our private name and address and telephone details (which it cannot), then the Environment Agency certainly cannot be either.

Mobile Phones

Mobile phones (which account for over 50% of calls to Emergency Services) do not feature in Sir Michael Pitt's interim report either.

Are the bureaucrats also going to demand to snoop on mobile telephones in the areas at risk ?

Sending (insecure, easily spoofed and therefore not trustworthy) SMS alerts via mobile phone, to the general public, or even to selected Emergency Services and Local Council "first responders", could be a recipe for disaster. There could be accidental or malicious false alarms or hoaxes, which could also be used by criminals or terrorists to manipulate people into evacuating critical infrastructure target buildings, or to concentrate and herd people to locations where they can be attacked.

See SMS disaster alert and warning systems - don't do it !

There is a small role for mobile phone SMS text message services and Location Based Services to help people in the aftermath of a flood, but not before the disaster has happened.

Electoral Roll

N.B. we cannot see any mention of the "electoral roll" in Sir Michael Pitt's report. Perhaps the Observer has been briefed verbally by someone else.

What use would having the name and address details of registered voters be to a Flood Warning system ? Are they planning to send individually addressed letters telling people about their Flood Warning schemes, by post, when "Dear Occupier" in only the affected areas would do perfectly well instead ?Most electoral roll records do not have any telephone or email details on them anyway.

There is no justification whatsoever for the Environment Agency to have access to the Electoral Roll at all.

Critical National Infrastructure failures

Reading the Review, especially "Chapter 5: The emergency response", and "Chapter 6: Critical infrastructure: keeping our essential services going", we have to question all the money and man hours of committees, which are supposed to have provided Civil Defence / Resilience planning for our Critical National Infrastructure - when tested, the plans seem to have failed:

Responders were surprised by the scale and duration of the emergencies and they often found themselves reacting to unexpected events. Sometimes basic information about operation and characteristics of the local drainage systems was unavailable when needed. The vulnerability of critical infrastructure and consequences of its failure were not fully appreciated in advance. The country must be better prepared and the Review makes a series of recommendations about national and local leadership, emergency planning, protection of local emergency facilities, water supplies, rescue and funding mechanisms.

The bureaucracy involved is far too complicated:


Coupled with the poor performance over the entirely avoidable Foot and Mouth Disease outbreaks from Government laboratories at Pirbright, in Surrey, supposedly tightly controlled by DEFRA, why has no DEFRA Government Minister e.g. Rt. Hon. Hilary Benn, taken the honourable course, and resigned ?

See the Health and Safety Executive's Final report on potential breaches of biosecurity at the Pirbright site 2007 (.pdf )


The real question - which is always ducked of course - is how so much "joined up thinking" over the last umpteen years has led to a situation where there have to be "flood warnings" in advance of the incompetence of the "water authorities" (i.e. like "King Canute") - who earn so much and do so little to prevent the problem ..

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