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A Hard drive containing personal details of three million candidates for the UK driving theory test has gone missing from a "secure facility" in, perplexingly, Iowa, Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly has told the House of Commons. The hard drive went missing in May, but 'only' includes name, address, phone number and email - no financial data.

So by recent UK standards this is a minor issue. But what was it all about? The data concerns candidates who took their theory test between September 2004 and April 2007, and was being held by a contractor working for the Driving Standards Agency. Now, here's a puzzle. Pearson VUE a part of the Pearson Group, "the largest testing company and education publisher in the world", began a seven year contract with the DSA to administer and process the test in September 2004. But the company being mentioned in relation to the data loss is named as Pearson Driving Assessments Ltd. A company of this name does exist, certainly, and reports that earlier this evening mentioned Pearson VUE seem mysteriously to have switched over to Pearson Driving Assessments Ltd instead.

Why this might be, we know not. But we do know that Pearson VUE was until recently claiming to hold the DSA test contract, and that the data that has gone missing covers the entire period for which Pearson VUE has had the contract.

It's entirely unclear why any company might have been squirrelling this data away anywhere, never mind in Iowa. There may be a rationale for retention of test results for future analysis, but the personal details of the candidates are of negligible relevance, and the long term retention of such data seems neither proportionate nor sensible. Data kleptos at work?

Helpfully, Pearson VUE offers a case study covering its relationship with the DSA. This tells us: "The intricate system of physical, password and encryption security ensures proprietary data, personal data and test items are always secure" and: "Verification of candidate identity is crucial to the integrity of the driving theory test. We offer real-time eligibility checks at the point of registration and an array of identification options to verify candidate identity at check-in for the test. Options available through Pearson VUE include biometric verification of fingerprints, photographs and signatures."

That biometric capability, together with the 150 test centres the company (or should that be another company?) operates throughout the UK, could come in handy when ID cards go live, one might speculate.

Aside from working for the DSA, Pearson VUE also operates tests and certification for a wide range of IT companies, including Sun, Citrix, Microsoft, Cisco and IBM. Its export of UK personal data to Iowa and elsewhere is covered by the US Safe Harbor arrangement with the EU. We do not as yet know what Pearson Driving Assessments Ltd's Safe Harbor arrangements might be. ®

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