A fly in the soup or a fly in the ointment! 

The Data Protection Act was brought in many years ago, but belatedly even then, as an attempt at preventing the misuse of personal data, mainly by large financial institutions. Not many people would argue that it is not needed today.  Indeed it could be argued that the law needs strengthening as organisations of all kinds, including numerous arms of government seem to be constantly acquiring ever more data on all of us, and apparently getting round the Act, or ignoring it. 

Ironically, however, there is another, opposite problem too: the undue reluctance to share information when such sharing would be at least socially acceptable, or even highly desirable.  I have encountered this when trying to investigate claims and found it difficult or impossible to obtain information relevant to the claim, when it was in the possession of the client. The left hand believed, to mix my metaphors, that the right hand should be kept in the dark!

Fortunately, so far, in my own experience, I do not recall there having been any unfortunate consequences beyond wasted time, money (in increased legal costs) and stress.  However, I have recently heard of an example with a much more serious consequence.  According to the Greater Manchester Police, information concerning the systematic exploitation of young and vulnerable girls was withheld for several years because some of the people who knew, or suspected, what was occurring, believed they were constrained by the Data Protection Act.

Life’s a balancing act! Perhaps it is because I have been involved in risk management for so long, that I have come to accepting that in an imperfect world, all we can do most of the time is to try to balance one risk against another.  So if you have to balance the risk of breaching data confidentiality against the risk of letting a sex-racket continue, which is the greater risk? By the way, I do know that in this example there should never even have been an issue, since the law specifically provides an exception for crime-prevention.  

A sense of proportion seems to me to be essential when managing or advising on risk, so as to not allow one risk to become so all-important as to require measures which increase other risks or have other harmful consequences.  The failure to appreciate the need for this balancing act is probably one of the factors leading to some of the apparently ludicrous stories which have got Health and Safety, and sometimes Insurance, an undeservedly bad name.

“Where do flies come into this?” you may ask.

You probably know a lot of very old jokes such as:

“What’s this fly doing in my soup?” “The breast stroke.”

“Waiter, why is there a dead fly in my soup?” “It’s the hot water that kills them.”

Well, the oldest of these is 2000 years old! It is in the Bible.  Jesus said the religious leaders of his day “strained at a gnat and swallowed a camel” meaning they fussed over something tiny, like an insect, in their soup, and failed to notice something really big, like a camel, in it. 

See St Matthew Chapter 23 verse 24. It was the way he told ’em!