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Staff misuse of UK public sector computer facilities is already a problem and is getting worse, a study by the Audit Commission concludes.

The public sector watchdog's report states that a 'culture of complacency' and a failure to ensure that staff understand rules is undermining improved security systems. Meanwhile new technologies, like the use of handheld devices (PDAs) and wireless networking, are creating fresh risks that public services are only slowly coming to terms with.

The online survey identified 200 cases of ICT fraud and abusey, based on voluntary responses from more than 400 public sector organisations, including hospitals, local authorities, police and fire authorities. The resulting Update on ICT Fraud and Abuse 2004 recorded a 13 percentage point growth in "reputational risks" - a category which includes staff downloading porn or other inappropriate material - since the last survey in 2001. More than half (52 per cent) of cases reported fell into this category in 2004 compared to 39 per cent in 2001. Financial risks also increased (28 per cent of cases in 2004 compared to 22 per cent in 2001).

A spokesman for the Audit Commission said that the last survey covered 650 organisation in the public and private sector whereas the latest study is based on voluntary responses from 400 organisations in the public sector alone, so the figures above should be treated with an element of caution. The 2001 survey recorded 194 cases of inappropriate use (a category that covers illicit file-sharing and the like as well as downloading porn) across the sample of 650 organisation compared to 90 cases of inappropriate use in 2004 across a sample of 400. This looks like a fall not a rise to us.

More positively the report points to some improvements in information security with security policies in place at 96 per cent of surveyed organisations. However only a third of surveyed organisations ran schemes to make sure staff were aware of these policies, indicating scope for further improvement. The study also recorded a fall in the incidence of "business disruption" (viruses or other deliberate acts aimed at denying users access to systems).

Steve Bundred, Chief Executive of the Audit Commission, said: "The growth in new technology – through PDAs and wireless networking, for example – coupled with the greater sophistication of hackers and fraudsters, mean that the risks remain significant. ICT security is only as effective as the staff within the organisation, and too often we are finding that staff are unsure of their role. If we fail to get this right we risk eroding the confidence of citizens in the electronic systems that underpin public services."

Alongside the report the Commission has produced a self-assessment questionnaire for public sector bosses designed to help them evaluate their own organisation's susceptibility to ICT fraud and abuse. This questionnaire ties in with a Your Business at Risk (YBAR) database, against which organisations can compare their information security measures against a range of other organisations. To use YBAR, local government and health bodies should contact their appointed auditor. ®

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