Tag Archives: Serco

corona marginalia: track-and-trace

Boris Johnson tells Britain that our test-and-tracing system will be “world-beating”. Here’s what I’ve witnessed from the inside.

Writes an anonymous whistleblower [I am calling “Ann”] in a piece published in today’s Guardian. This is what happened shortly after she applied to an online ad for a temporary “customer service adviser”, which read:

You must have your own computer and high-speed internet to download our software and communicate with our customers … Don’t let lockdown stop you getting your dream job.

“The training was very basic”, Ann says, going on to describe in detail the extremely cursory “online training course” each of the candidates had to sit through:

We saw some slides about our role – the public health website we will use, and a script for what we had to say to people. We were told do not go off-script, and if there was anything we could not answer, we should ask our supervisor.

The training was wrapped up early, and we were asked if we felt prepared. There was a chorus of no from many people. Some said yes, but I didn’t see how anyone could be prepared for something they’d only found out about a couple of hours ago, plus we hadn’t even accessed the specific programmes. I checked my schedule and saw that I was due to start the next day at 9am. Panic set in.

The trainer told us there was a further seven and a half hours of self-led training that we had to complete before “going live”. This seemed a little unfair, if not impossible to achieve by the next morning. We were reassured that we could probably get through the training in two to three hours – but we would be paid for all seven and a half.

The trainer declared the training over and was immediately inundated with more questions from those anxious about what to do and when. The chatroom was then closed by the trainer, and were left on our own.

The self-led courses were very basic – with some generic dos and don’ts about customer data, security and so on. I completed it all in less than one and a half hours, with a score of 95%+.

The entirety of Ann’s first day of “work” was then spent waiting for entry into a chatroom. Her online colleagues were similarly left out in the cold. The second day was little different: “The day passed as we waited, re-attempted training, and wrote messages to supervisors and got no response.” This went on for the whole week and by the weekend, she tells us: “I had clocked up 40 hours of key worker pay for doing absolutely nothing.”

Ann continues:

Over the next few days I learned more about my job from watching the news than I did from those who were supposed to supervise me. I still did not feel qualified to do it. Then it was announced by [Matt] Hancock that we were going live the next day. On my chat there was a message from a supervisor asking the more experienced members of our chat to help those who needed help. The blind leading the blind! How were people who started the same day as me, and who had the same short and basic training as I had, supposed to help me do my job?

Ann concludes her account of the whole experience philosophically:

To this day I remain a “key worker”, paid £10 an hour to sit in a chatroom – alone, lost, without support or help. Despite what the government is saying, it seems the relentless problem “with the system” is another pandemic without a cure. Motivated as I am to help out during this difficult time – and after two weeks of doing “pretend” work on the track-and-trace programme – I have decided to quit and try to find a real way to help people.

Click here to read the full story entitled “Why I quit working on Boris Johnson’s ‘word-beating’ test-and tracing system”, published by the Guardian on May 30th.

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Those who have worked anywhere within the service sector are rather too familiar with these sorts of ‘online training courses’. The whole industry is basically a racket and of course every racket is driven by the profit motive. The question that immediately arises therefore is which private company was contracted by the government on this occasion. And it will come as little surprise that the trail soon leads to the outsourcing giant Serco:

Serco is overseeing the crucial track-and-trace system that has been launched today. But people it has recruited to work as contract tracers have already complained about a lack of training and guidance.

Earlier this month, Serco was condemned after it accidentally shared the contact details of 300 contact tracers. The error has led to calls for an urgent investigation into the “alarming” incident.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, wrote to Michael Gove, her counterpart in government, that it was “particularly troubling that a company that is being trusted with some of the most sensitive work in our national effort against the virus seems to struggle with the most basic aspects of data privacy”.

The contract-tracing data breach was not the first fiasco in Serco’s contributions to the government’s pandemic response. In April the company was in the news over concerns about delays at the drive-in COVID-19 test centres that it was managing. At one test site, key workers were left waiting for two hours in hot weather, unable to leave their vehicle or even open the windows.

From an exposé published by OpenDemocracy on May 28th entitled “Revealed: Serco under fire over fresh £90m COVID-19 contract”

Click here to read an earlier post about Serco’s subcontracting role in the fingerprinting of British schoolchildren.

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Update: on the creeping privatisation of the NHS

On May 4th, the Guardian published an article entitled “UK government ‘using pandemic to transfer NHS duties to the private sector’”

The government is using the coronavirus pandemic to transfer key public health duties from the NHS and other state bodies to the private sector without proper scrutiny, critics have warned.

Doctors, campaign groups, academics and MPs raised the concerns about a “power grab” after it emerged on Monday that Serco was in pole position to win a deal to supply 15,000 call-handlers for the government’s tracking and tracing operation.

They said the health secretary, Matt Hancock, had “accelerated” the dismantling of state healthcare and that the duty to keep the public safe was being “outsourced” to the private sector.

In recent weeks, ministers have used special powers to bypass normal tendering and award a string of contracts to private companies and management consultants without open competition.

Click here to read the full Guardian article written by Juliette Garside and Rupert Neate.

One month later, they published a follow-up piece:

[Serco] have taken the bulk of the work, recruiting 10,000 of the new 25,000 contact tracers after being awarded an initial fee of £45.8m, which could rise to £90m.

In an email forwarded to staff, which was then immediately recalled, a message from [Rupert Soames, Serco’s chief executive] said: “There are a few, a noisy few, who would like to see us fail because we are private companies delivering a public service. I very much doubt that this is going to evolve smoothly, so they will have plenty of opportunity to say I told you so.”

It continued: “If it succeeds … it will go a long way in cementing the position of the private sector companies in the public sector supply chain. Some of the naysayers recognise this, which is why they will take every opportunity to undermine us.”

[Bold emphasis added]

Click here to read the full Guardian article entitled “NHS test-and-trace system ‘not fully operational until September’” written by Sarah Marsh, published on June 4th.

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Sign the WeOwnIt Petition:

Serco is already failing to deliver:

  • The head of Serco has said that the contact tracing system won’t be operational until September and is likely to be “imperfect and clunky”
  • Serco has only tracked 1749 people so far, with many staff sitting idle.
  • Staff say they have no idea what they should be doing, are paid near minimum wage and have had minimum training – a recipe for disaster.

Serco has scammed us before:

  • They were convicted of fraud for the electronic tagging scandal, and fined £23 million
  • Their breast cancer hotline only trained staff for 1 hour before putting them on the phones to talk to distressed patients
  • They falsified NHS data 252 times when they ran a GP out of hours service

They’re not fit to run such an important system to get us out of this pandemic safely. But we’re being asked to trust them with our lives.

Click here to sign the petition.

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who’s backing privatisation of the NHS? here’s who…

As the Liberal Democrats are denied a conference vote on the NHS reform bill, its unpopular passage through parliament says much about a wider lack of democracy in this country. Both the House of Commons and the House of Lords are simply stuffed to the rafters with vested interests, and when it comes to the healthcare debate, such parasitism abounds in all the major parties, as this excellent compilation of conflicts of interest reveals – Lords and Ladies first – and please note that I’m only providing a tiny sample (to read the complete list click here) :

Lord Ashcroft [obviously] Conservative benches and funder – Until 2010, held investments in two private healthcare groups.

Lord Boswell [no relation!] — Conservative – Has shares in Reckitt Benckiser which produces drugs for the NHS amongst other health institutions. NHS is currently suing Reckitt Benckiser for £90 million following an investigation that ruled the company had abused its dominant position in the heartburn market. The company has just paid a fine for £10.2 million in 2010 following a ruling by the Office of Fair Trading which found them guilty of illegal anti-compative behaviour relating to their heartburn product Gaviscon. Lord Boswell’s shares have in brackets household part of the company, but in the end it is the same company. He also has shares in GlaxoSmithKline PLC pharmaceuticals.

Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone: Conservative – The former Conservative Health Secretary Virginia Bottomley is a Director of BUPA, the health insurance, private hospital and care group.

Quotes on bill:‘I give this Bill an unequivocal and extraordinarily warm welcome.’

‘It is romantic poppycock to think that the Secretary of State should be personally involved…’

Baroness Eccles: Conservative — Has shares in GlaxoSmithKline (Healthcare) — GlaxoSmith Kline. GSK is the UK’s leading supplier of COPD medicines.

Quotes on bill:‘My Lords, I am delighted to support this bill.’ ‘I hope that this bill will initiate a sea change in the way that we approach the nation’s health…’

Lord Lee – Liberal Democrats – Shares in United Drug plc (Pharmaceuticals) – Provide home-based pharmacy care for patients covered by the NHS as a joint venture from 2009 with Medco Health Solutions.

Lord Filkin: Labour – Adviser to outsourcing giant Serco, heavily involved in NHS services.

Lord Leitch: — Labour Bupa chairman.

Baroness Morgan of Huyton: Labour – Ex-director of failed care home firm Southern Cross.

And of our many honourable members of the House of Commons:

Andrew Lansley [obviously] — Conservative – John Nash, the chairman of Care UK, gave £21,000 to fund Andrew Lansley’s personal office in November 2009. In a recent interview, a senior director of the firm said that 96 per cent of Care UK’s business, which amounted to more than £400 million last year, came from the NHS. – Hedge fund boss John Nash is one of the major Conservative donors with close ties to the healthcare industry.

Andrew Lansley’s wife, Sally Low, is founder and managing director of Low Associates (“We make the link between the public and private sectors”). A Daily Telegraph report in February records that the Low Associates website lists pharmaceuticals companies SmithKline Beecham, Unilever and P&G among its clients. It also records Ms Low’s assertion that the company “does not work with any client who has interests in the health sector”. The website currently contains no reference to the drug firms listed above. http://www.channel4.com/news/andrew-lansleys-nhs-plans-still-in-good-health

Simon Burns: [how very unsurprising!] Conservative – Chelmsford MP – attended an oncology conference paid for by Aventis Pharma – a five-day trip to the US funded by a leading drug firm.

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/2011/01/28/tory-party-links-to-private-healthcare-companies-115875-22880670/

Liam Fox [another of the usual suspects] – Former Conservative MP – became shadow health secretary in 1999 – employs Adam Werrity as a paid intern in 2004 – by this time Adam Werrity becomes a director of health consultancy firm ‘UK Health Ltd’ (now dissolved), while Liam Fox was shadow health secretary of which he and Liam Fox were shareholders. Werrity owned 11.5% of UK Health Group and Fox owned 2.3%. In 2005 a researcher based in Mr Fox’s office worked ‘exclusively’ for the now closed Atlantic Bridge ‘charity’, which Liam Fox was the founding member; Mr Werrity became director, and which had links to radical right-wing neocons in the U.S. The researcher received funding from Pfizer Inc. He claimed she has no function in any health role.’ The researcher was Gabby Bertin, who is now David Cameron’s press secretary.

The full list just goes on and on and on…

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if you tolerate this…

My eldest nephew is very excited at the moment. He has just turned eleven and is about to move to his new secondary school. Anyway, a few weeks ago, my sister showed me a letter she’d received via the assistant head at her son’s new school. It read:

“Dear Parent/Carer,

I am pleased to inform you that we will be installing biometric fingerprint readers at the – – – School as part of the catering system.”

“Pleased to inform you… as part of the catering system!”, I parroted back, as my sister read on from the briefing, my own voice rising with incredulity. “They’re fingerprinting the kids to help with the catering?!”

“Yes, but he’s not going to have his fingerprints taken”, she assured me, “they’re not going to treat him like a prisoner. It’s not compulsory…” And she then read on:

“This will enable students to get their dinners more quickly by speeding up the payments process. It will also mean that they can put cash into the system (via paying in machines, like a ticket machine) whenever it suits them so that they do not have to carry cash around with them all day…”

I interrupted again: “But you could do that with a card or something.”

“Yes, I know,” she said, “that’s the alternative option…” And then continuing from the letter:

“Swipe cards can be issued as an alternative to the finger scanning however these can obviously be lost, forgotten or stolen.”

“So what are the other parents thinking?” I asked her.

“There are a few of us refusing but mostly they think it’s just a good idea.”

“Do you know what company’s behind it?” I asked.

“No, but there are some notes on the back…” And she turned the letter over to show me, adding: “perhaps you can check it out”.

On the back of the letter, there is indeed “information” about the biometric system being installed. Information that explains why: “students, parents and staff can rest assured that the fingerprint images cannot be used by any other source for identification purposes”, because “the software turns your child’s fingerprint into a mathematical algorithm” and about how “the image of the fingerprint is then discarded”.

What the notes fail to mention, however, is that this kind of “processing” is standard procedure when recording any kind of digital biometrics. With “image capture” followed by “feature extraction” leading finally to “digital representation”, data compression is an inevitability, but that’s okay so long as in this processing the “vital information” isn’t lost. The important thing is that “the encoded information is functionally as unique as the original, and as easily processed, i.e., compared.”

How do I know this? In part because I’ve just read through Chapter 8 of the Defense Science Board Task Force report on biometrics (p35–6) published in September 2006. Not that a report from the US Department of Defense has anything to do with the installation of a catering system at a school in Sheffield, obviously…

So the fact that “the information stored cannot be used to recreate an image of the child’s fingerprint”, as the notes on the back of the letter explain, is actually beside the point. The actual point being that they can be used to identify the child, because the information is still “as functionally unique as the original”. To put all this another way, a photograph cannot be used to reconstruct a perfect 3-D likeness of your head. There is a loss of information. But that obviously doesn’t mean a photograph can’t be used to identify you. It can, and even when still more information is removed, by let’s say photocopying it a few times, a photo will still retain a sufficiently detailed likeness to identify you. Biometrics are just the next step down. The original photo can be deleted, just so long as sufficient details are retained of, for example, how wide your mouth is and how close together your eyes are. With enough of the right pieces of information, they can distinguish one person from another, reliably and consistently. Which is how biometrics works.

All of this biometric information, “the unique digital signatures” are then held in the database, as the notes on the letter from school also explain. Less clear is who actually owns this database. And skipping through the other details on the back of the letter, I can’t immediately find the name of the company involved, but it does give the brand name of their “cashless catering system”, which is IMPACT. So I looked up IMPACT:

“A million users in over 1700 schools throughout the UK.

We design, build and maintain industry leading, reliable and functional cashless payment systems under the brand name IMPACT…”

Here begins the sales pitch on the homepage of CRB Solutions. Never heard of them? Nor had I. Well, it turns out that they are a “Serco Learning Partner”, one of many. Indeed, Serco have more than 20 current “Learning Partners” offering “solutions” to “clients” (i.e., schools and colleges across the country), which means they have access to a lot of biometric and other kinds of data on school pupils and college students. For instance, listed directly above CRB Solutions, there is Aurora Computer Services, who are:

The UK market leader in face recognition. faceREGISTER is designed for sixth form registration or whole school lateness. faceREGISTER enables students to register automatically in school, college or university.”

Gone are the days, apparently, when teachers simply remembered their student’s faces. Now whenever a student is late:

they will be asked for a reason why they are late and these marks are fed back to Serco Facility via our administration software faceMANAGER.

Those of a more curious disposition are perhaps wondering what other kinds of personal information is downloaded at the “Serco Facility”. In fact, what other kinds of information more generally, since Serco already offers its services in sectors as diverse as environmental services, health, science, transport, local government, welfare to work, defence and nuclear. Nuclear? Yes, nuclear:

“We support the operation of over 20 nuclear reactors, and serve as the lead nuclear safety advisor to Westinghouse, designer of the AP1000 nuclear reactor currently under assessment for the UK’s new civil nuclear programme.” 1

That and the management of the National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL), which Serco says is the leading nuclear technology services provider in the UK, “with expertise across the full range of nuclear technology, including waste management, nuclear safety and non-proliferation, materials and corrosion and plant inspection.” So that’s pretty comprehensive. Aside from this, Serco also manages the UK Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) as part of a consortium with Lockheed Martin and Jacobs. So the company behind the introduction of school biometrics systems across the country is also responsible for managing the UK atomic power and weapons programmes:

“Serco has a reputation for being a tad secretive. This is perhaps not surprising, as it manages the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Berkshire, where nuclear weapons are made, and runs the ballistic missile early warning system.

There are parts of AWE that even the head of the company, Kevin Beeston, can’t go into. Other secrets, too, are kept from him, such as where the company stores evidence on behalf of the National Crime Squad. “I don’t need to know or want to know,” he says.” 2

So begins an article entitled “Serco thunders down the tracks: Traffic lights, rail services, atomic weapons, the time of day. This secretive company manages them all” from the Independent on Sunday, published in March 2002. The article goes on:

“While many people haven’t heard of Serco, almost everyone in this country will have come across its services. It is Serco that runs the speed cameras on the M25, and maintains the traffic signals on a third of motorways in the UK. Half of London’s traffic lights are run by Serco, as are all the signals in Dublin. Manchester’s tram service, Metrolink, and London’s Docklands Light Railway (DLR) are both Serco-operated. When you ring National Rail Enquiries, you will speak to a Serco employee. The company has also built hospitals and prisons.

“In fact, Serco is so ubiquitous, it even sets the time. It manages the National Physical Laboratory, which owns the atomic clock that gives us Greenwich Mean Time.

“You’d be forgiven for thinking Serco was a government ministry.”

This article was published almost a decade ago and yet Serco‘s involvement in running public services was so large and far-flung that comparison is already being made to “a government ministry”. So just how did Serco manage to expand so rapidly and yet so inconspicuously? Well, here’s a brief overview of their rise and rise, taken from the same article:

“As well as having a novel corporate culture, Serco also has an intriguing history. It started out in 1929 as the UK maintenance division of RCA, at the time a cinema and radio equipment company. In the late Fifties it got its first taste of top-secret government contracts. The Ministry of Defence needed a radio equipment specialist to design, build and run the four-minute warning system for nuclear attacks. RCA got the job and has been maintaining it since.

“But it was in the early Eighties that the government-related business really started taking off. Beeston takes up the story: “Mrs Thatcher had come in power in 1979 and began reducing public sector costs on a tax-reduction agenda and carrying out privatisation. One of biggest areas that was first turned to contractualisation was the Ministry of Defence.”

“Happily for Serco, Thatcher’s successors, John Major and Tony Blair, both exhibited a fondness for getting the private sector involved in the public sector.”

Click here to read the full article by Heather Tomlinson:

Four years later and Serco were already being talked of as “probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of”, as a glowing profile of their CEO Christopher Hyman in the Guardian explained:

“Have you recently travelled on a train in northern England? Or on London’s Docklands Light Railway? Or perhaps been caught by a speed camera?

“If the answer to any of these questions was yes — or you have spent any time in custody or the armed forces — chances are you have dealt with the support services company Serco. With almost 48,000 people helping to service 600 largely public-sector contracts around the world, Serco is probably the biggest company you’ve never heard of.”3

No longer a small British subsidiary of a little known American corporation, by 2006, when the article above was published, Serco had gone global. Here, for instance, is taste of what Serco are already running in Canada, Ireland, Dubai, and Australia these days:

Taken from ABC Australia’s Hungry Beast.

Rebranded with Olympian titles, we are familiar with the names of most of our new gods: Blackwater and DynCorp, gods of war and reconstruction; Monsanto, god of harvests; Nokia, god of messages; Walmart, god of convenience; Aviva, god of life (insurance); but then, above and beyond all of these, there is Serco, the god of all the things the other gods don’t already do. A god without portfolio, and although not quite omnipresent, Serco is certainly “highly maneuverable”. As their own bragging PR likes to put it: “Serco has a finger in many pies”.

Now, having reached this point I realise that I have drifted well away from the original issue. My initial response to reading the letter from my nephew’s school having been to wonder at the kind of country we are living in. Already the most surveilled society in history, and now face-scanning and fingerprinting our children on a routine basis. In the process, as my sister says, we are already treating them as if they’re little criminals. Is it really necessary to hammer home the point here?

For we may believe this data can and will never be retrieved for uses beyond the bounds of the schools and colleges involved, but in permitting such licence we are nevertheless inculcating a sense of naïve trust in the next generation, which will normalise them to accept adult life in a surveillance society. We are teaching them to submit to authority. The word Orwellian is very overworked, but what other word can be applied in this instance? We are fingerprinting our children and entrusting that information to the major government defence contractor. And there is barely a raised eyebrow. Parents are mostly thinking that this is “helpful”. So please, if you haven’t done so already, read Nineteen Eighty-Four (not that Orwell has anything to say about fingerprint or face recognition systems, because back in the 1940s such hi-tech digital biometrics had yet to be imagined, let alone invented).

So what kind of a world awaits my nephew and his friends when he finally leaves school in five years time? Well, that will depend.

The road ahead is already laid. As our national assets and provision of our state sector were stolen away, Serco, and a few other giant corporations, absorbed the new workforce and took over. And now, as ours and other economies around the world begin to splutter and flail, they are about to suck up whatever remains at bargain prices. Finally, they will put up their toll-booths at every turn of our daily lives, and in the envisaged “cashless society”, these toll-booths will also be our checkpoints — logging every transaction and every movement.

History ought to have taught us to beware, its overriding message being that the rise of tyranny needs to be constantly guarded against. But those, like Thatcher and Reagan, who rushed us away from more direct forms of centralised government (supposedly to save us from a Soviet style tyranny) have delivered us instead into the talons of an unregulated and monopolised market. Any distinction between interests of the state and the corporations having thus been eroded, the takeover by multinationals such as Serco has been unstoppable. After all, someone has to be in charge of things. Serco then (and the pantheon of other corporate gods we must increasingly bow to) amounts to governance by another title, and not merely at a national scale, but transnationally — a few corporations becoming, in effect, arms of an unelected and largely unaccountable “global governance”.

This shift away from democracy and towards neo-feudalism is happening in plain sight. You even get the picture from Serco‘s own PR  material — the closing overlapping mosaic of corporate heads in their latest video simultaneously and hypnotically announcing: “we are Serco”; with the eerie subtext being that “resistance is futile”. But resistance isn’t futile, not yet…

If you’d like further information about this widening programme of school biometrics then I direct you to a worthwhile campaign group called Leave Them Kids Alone (LTKA) that is calling for a stop to this latest encroachment upon our civil liberties, or rather, the civil liberties of our children.

2 From an article entitled “Serco thunders down the tracks: Traffic lights, rail services, atomic weapons, the time of day. This secretive company manages them all” by Heather Tomlinson published in the Independent on Sunday on Sunday 10th March 2002 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/serco-thunders-down-the-tracks-653444.html

3 From an article entitled “Happy, touchy-feely and driven by God: The Serco chief Christopher Hyman is unusual for his values of doing business, with staff and customers coming first and profit last” by Jane Martinson, published in the Guardian on Friday 24th February, 2006. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2006/feb/24/columnists.guardiancolumnists

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phone hacking & the big society sell-off

The following documentaries, broadcast yesterday evening (and scheduled at the same time), are both highly recommended:

Exposed: The Dark Arts – Panorama

broadcast on BBC1 at 8:30pm-9:00pm
Editor Tom Giles
Producer Stephen Scott

Reporter Vivian White investigates the questionable methods used by some journalists at the News of the World to get a story, revealing allegations of law-breaking that go beyond phone hacking, he asks whether police inaction allowed such practices to continue.

“Phone hacking was once dismissed by executives at News International as the illegal work of “one rogue reporter”. The defence collapsed with one journalist at the News of the World being sacked and the original police inquiry having to be re-opened. Panorama exposes the full extent of the “dark arts” employed by journalists across the industry to get their story. The programme reveals a dishonourable history of law breaking that went beyond phone hacking and questions the police inaction that let it continue.”

Click here for link to BBC iplayer

Dispatches: Britain’s Secret Fat Cats

broadcast on Channel 4 at 8:00pm-9:00pm
Executive Producer Tom Porter

Journalist Ben Laurance explores the likely effects of the Government’s spending cuts and plans for the Big Society. He reveals how private outsourcing companies such as Serco and G4S are set to take over large areas of the public sector and, based on track records, the likely effects on services.

Click here for link to 4OD

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