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Hackers: The millennial scapegoats?

This time they're to blame for Cabinet leaks

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The leak of a confidential memo outlining PM Tony Blair's concerns that New Labour is out of touch with the electorate appears to have been pinned on hackers.

The leak came as an embarrassment to the government, especially considering recent criticism of its policies. After the memo came to light, papers were quick to point out the significance of it only being sent to close confidants of the prime minister. Who is the mole?, was the question posed by many editorials.

However, after a day's reflection, a different explanation from the traditional frustrated-minister-leak has taken hold. Number 10, the theory holds, has been hacked and this explains not only this leak but other embarrassing revelations that have come out in recent months.

This is an extremely tough call to make. On the one hand, this explanation is a near-perfect political answer to a nasty situation. On the other, it's all too plausible.

Faced with the situation, and assuming it was a leak by a senior government source, this hacker theory has enormous political advantages. It is already in the public domain, so damage limitation is the order of the day. The hacker story will pull media attention off its search for who leaked the material and push it towards computer security concerns. Aside from lifting scrutiny and pressure on the party, it also produces a smokescreen behind which Labourites can try to find who actually released the information.

Building on the idea that it has been hacked will also provide the government with a certain degree of sympathy - most people have had their privacy invaded at some point and know that reality is often very different from the perceived truth. On top of this, this whole situation elevates the issue of computer security and thus Internet technology and the digital world. It's what's called making the best of what you've got.

But then, of course, it may be a hack job. Whitehall has been pushing through some fairly hefty IT projects recently in its bid to make the government totally Internet-enabled by 2005. When things go this fast, it only needs one civil servant with an astute IT knowledge to find a hole in the system. Once that hole is found, and with people rushing ahead with other projects, it is not inconceivable that you could gain and fortify a foothold in the government's IT system. A very useful foothold to have. The recent defacing of the Cabinet Office Web site also points to the fact that Downing Street has been targeted by hackers.

"Senior sources" have also pointed out that recent leaks have had one thing in common: they have been sent via email. What's the truth of this? Well, we would apply the if-it-sounds-too-perfect-it-ain't-true rule. In this case, we don't believe a word of it.

Getting cynical for a moment, it is not even inconceivable that this is an intentional leak. If you look at it, the memo basically says that Tony Blair actually has his finger on the UK's pulse by, er... not having his finger on the pulse. He is seen to be answering the press' concerns, he is concerned about the British public blah blah blah.

So what is actually going on? We really couldn't tell you. But whatever story you believe, it does demonstrate one thing: that the government has become far more tech-savvy than at any time in the past. As ever, this will have negative and positive effects on the UK's democracy. ®

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