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FCO to probe visa security lapse

Indian problem could be worldwide

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The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has closed its online service for visa applicants from India while it investigates a security breach that made the personal details of visa applicants available online.

VFS Global, the private firm that runs the FCO's online visa application service, told the reporter who broke the story that they had "resolved" the problem "globally". The breach was initially thought to have occured only in India, and the FCO's statement on the matter treated it that way. Yet VFS run online visa applications for the FCO in various countries.

The security hole was originally reported to both VFS and the British High Commission more than a year ago but no action was taken. The Indian gent who first noticed the problem has a blog here.

Lord Triesman, Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, said in a statement yesterday: "The VFS online facility will not be resumed until VFS and UKvisas can be assured that it is absolutely secure."

VFS's online service could apparently be subverted by making changes to its URL - doing so gave a browser access to the firm's database of visa applicants, which stored passport numbers, names, addresses, and travel details.

Mumbai-based VFS - a subsidiary of the Zurich-based Kuoni Travel Group - operates 11 visa application centres in India. According to the FCO, the firm processed 471,746 Indian visa applications last year, but only a "small proportion" were initiated using the online service.

However, VFS also processes online applications for UK visas from Nigeria and Russia. The FCO could not confirm whether the same problem occured in the systems operating in these countries as well, but did say that their sites had been closed down.

As well as VFS, CSC is contracted to handle visa applications. A spokesman for UK Visas said that 87 per cent of applications were handled by these third parties in their countries of operation. 12 per cent of the applications handled by VFS in India, Nigeria and Russia were handled online.

Furthermore, VFS's online service is merely intended to support the walk-in visa service it runs in its countries of operation. Visa applicants to the UK can still make online applications on the FCO's own website.

VFS also provides visa services to countries including the US, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, and Sweden.

Yet Damian Green, Conservative shadow immigration minister, said the screw-up didn't bode well for the government's identity plans.

"This government cannot even run a simple online visa application system without betraying all the sensitive information. What hope has it got of protecting the integrity of the National Identity Card Register which will hold dozens of pieces of sensitive information of every adult in the country?" he said in a statement. ®

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