Missing data found on mysterious comet, Darling

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All your data are belong to...er... someone else, we just don't know who

You might have noticed a small story going around this week about the government losing a bit of data on some of Her Majesty's subjects...

You know, the 25 million personal records of child benefit recipients that were stuffed on to a couple of CDs that went missing in the post.

Initially, a junior civil servant was blamed, then more senior figures shuffled into the frame. The debacle has cast a shadow over the government's beloved ID card scheme, and has prompted calls for the Chancellor's, and even the new PM's heads.

We've collated our coverage of Alistair Darling's big adventure here.

In other news...gosh, it has been a bad week for our elected masters...

Selling out the taxpayer?

A long-anticipated report by the National Audit Office (NAO) into the privatisation of defence-tech research company Qinetiq was published this week. It contained damning criticism of the sell-off, which enriched the company bosses and the private equity investors rather more than it did the MoD.

The MoD also came under fire for its Defence Information Infrastructure programme. It says it is not an "unmitigated disaster", and that everything is rolling along nicely, thank you very much. This, despite a joint Channel 4/Computer Weekly investigation that suggests the project was massively behind schedule and would cost an extra £1bn...

On track at the FCO, no worries

Despite IT project delays, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has insisted it is on course to deliver on its £120m efficiency savings target by the end of 2007-08. The declaration comes in spite of delays to its Future Firecrest desktop IT project, which will not be rolled out until early next year.

Medical worries

Meanwhile, GPs have rounded on the medical records database, citing fears of confidentiality breaches and poor security. And this was before HMRC lost the plot. A survey found that the majority of family doctors plan to shun the central medical records database, unless patients give specific consent to having their data uploaded.

How private is personal?

The European Court of First Instance has ruled that documents containing personal data cannot be withheld under EU freedom of information laws if the disclosure of the data does not undermine the privacy of the persons named. Astonishingly, this was all started by a disagreement about a barrel of beer.

From the department of No Merde, Sherlockian chapter

An EC-funded report has found that governments across Europe need to address the issue of trust in technology systems used by public authorities, and warns that high-tech ID cards are not a panacea. Hmm, someone should send Darling a memo...

Faceless book?

Why can't we delete accounts? That is the question this week, and it is being asked by the Information Commissioner. The investigation was launched after a complaint from a British user who tried, and failed, to delete his account. Facebook accounts can be "deactivated" but not actually deleted. Facebook has said these terms and conditions are plain for all to see when they sign up.

In related news, a government study has found that small print needs a revamp. Information requirements are an irritant for business, the report found, and consumers routinely ignore the small print overload because it is turgid and confusing.

Enough of the government and its IT woes. On to the rest of the news.

It takes a hive to run a server

Researchers in Georgia, USA, reckon they can increase the efficiency of web servers by mimicking the methods used by honey bees to collect nectar. It seems the new hive-mind technology was the brainchild of Professor Craig Tovey of the Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT).

"I studied bees for years, waiting for the right application," Tovey said. "You have to look for a close analogy between two systems — never a superficial one... this definitely fit the bill." Who knew serving web pages was just like sucking nectar?

Green data centres? Lots of hot air

The majority of data centre operators say they're concerned about power consumption, but when it comes to actually implementing a plan, they haven't the energy.

Symantec's latest pollster thermometer prodded 800 data centre professionals in a worldwide survey about energy efficiency woes. About 71 per cent said they are considering a "green strategy" to implement, while only 14 per cent have started to do something about it.

Happy as an IT outsourcer

Despite its close ties to HMRC, and the looming 600 compulsory redundancies therein, Capgemini's chief executive said this week that the IT outsourcing firm had a "truly tremendous" October in the face of current economic uncertainty in the US.

Mobiles in schools? No thanks

Mobile phones would be outlawed in UK classrooms under Conservative Party plans to beef up discipline in schools. The Tories said in an education policy document that they wanted to see authority returned to teachers. They reckoned an important part of that proposal would include a crackdown on the use of mobile phones.

Video 'cartel' fined

The European Commission has fined videotape manufacturers Sony, Fuji, and Maxell a total of €74.8m for alleged cartel activity in the videotape market. In a statement, the commission said the three companies, which have a combined share of 85 per cent of the professional videotape market, managed to raise or otherwise control prices.

Set a thief...

The German government has reportedly started hiring coders to develop "white hat" malware capable of covertly hacking into terrorists' PCs. The recruitment push signals that the German government is going ahead with controversial plans, yet to be legally approved, to develop "remote forensic software".

...to unlock an iPhone?

Also in Germany, Vodafone has won an injunction preventing T-Mobile from selling the iPhone in Germany. T-Mobile is Apple's exclusive carrier partner in Europe's biggest market. The lawsuit challenges T-Mobile's exclusivity arrangement with Apple. There's some confusion about the extent of the injunction - with some reports of a total ban on sales.

eVoting Californicated?

California's chief elections official has sued a popular e-voting device vendor for almost $15m in a suit that claims Election Systems & Software repeatedly violated state laws requiring it to receive certification for a ballot-marking device before selling it to county voting officials.

Paging Hewlett-Packard

The US Senate has approved a bill to tighten US cyber-crime laws. An amended version of the Identity Theft Enforcement and Restitution Act of 2007 was unanimously approved by the Senate on 15 November, but the measures still need to be approved by the House and the President before becoming law. Among other things, pretexting, the practice of impersonating someone to steal sensitive personal information that became infamous through the HP spying scandal, will become a clearly defined federal crime for the first time through the bill.

Batten down the hatches, it's not safe out there

Mozilla's head of security has promised a patch for a dangerous vulnerability that's been lurking in the popular Firefox browser for more than eight months. Ouch.

Meanwhile, version 3 of Firefox is now available to download for its first beta test. After 27 months of hard work the Gecko 1.9 rendering engine has been integrated, and the development team is feeling ready to share its project with the world. Version 3 has improved security features, Mozilla says.


Hushmail has updated its terms of service. It now explains clearly that encrypted emails sent through the service can still be turned over to law enforcement officials, providing they obtain a court order in Canada.

September court documents from a US federal prosecution of alleged steroid dealers reveals that Hush Communications turned over 12 CDs involving emails on three targeted Hushmail accounts, in compliance of court orders made through the mutual assistance treaty between the US and Canada.

The Simple Art of Malware

Miscreants are trying to convince email users that their telephone conversations are being recorded in a ruse designed to scare prospective marks into buying bogus security software. Emails promoting the campaign are laced with a new Trojan horse malware. Keep your eyes peeled...

Don't trust anyone...

Beware of emails that mention you and your company by name and claim to be official communications from the US Department of Justice. They're phony and will attempt to install malware on your machine. Of course, not many of us can expect email from the DoJ, so that's probably a bit of a giveaway...

Let us eat dial-up?

A high-powered cadre of broadband industry policy wonks, watchdogs, and politicos has ramped up the Westminster debate over our creaking internet infrastructure ahead of a key government meeting next week. Discussions around high speed next-generation broadband infrastructure assume that laying a new national fibre to the home network would cost about £15bn.


A UK charity has launched a channel on YouTube to encourage kids to stop putting up with bullying on social networking and video sharing websites. Assorted celebs like Ronan Keating, Girls Aloud, Danni Minogue, and Patrick Stewart are included in a video urging children not to put up with online abuse. And if it is Picard saying so, you know you ought to behave.

Patent this, sucker

A US court has refused to reconsider a ruling ordering Vonage to pay $120m to Verizon for patent infringements. The final bill was expected to be between $80m and $120m, and Vonage had put aside $88m to cover the cost. The additional $32m is going to hurt, even as the company tried to put on a brave face.

Fruity courtroom battles

Apple has agreed to pay Burst.com $10m to settle the patent infringement challenge the smaller US company launched against it in April 2006.

Burst.com claimed Apple's iTunes Music Store, QuickTime streaming software, and the iPod all incorporate - without permission - technology detailed in four patents held by Burst.com, covering the transmission of compressed audio and video files over the net.

Firesale on hold

Law enforcement officials have poured cold water on plans by TJX to hold a one-day sale for customers as part of a proposed settlement for a consumer class-action case against the security incident-afflicted retailer.

The firm faces consumer and bank class action lawsuits over the exposure of an estimated 45.7 million customer records as the result of a security breach that lasted for two distinct six month periods between 2003 and December 2006. Hackers broke into a system that stored data on credit card, debit card, cheque, and return details in an attack blamed on a poorly secured wireless network in one of its stores. Subsequent credit card frauds have been traced to data swiped as a result of these breaches and a number of arrests have been made.

End of an era?

There is increasing concern that the Atari brand is finally on the verge of disappearing. The firm has just concluded a quarter where its losses are bigger than its revenues, which have crashed to just $10.4m. Three years ago, Atari amassed sales of $343m, which fell to $206m last year and $122m for the year just gone.

The rest of the money stuff

Salesforce.com saw revenue rise by a whopping 48 per cent during its third fiscal quarter. The firm's chairman and chief executive Marc Benioff said on Friday that he expects Salesforce.com to become the first ever on-demand company to exceed $1bn in annual revenue in its 2009 financial year.

Ongoing cost-cutting measures at Hewlett-Packard continue to make their quarterly earnings a cheerful affair for stockholders - although probably not for the 15,000 former employees sacrificed since 2005 to buoy profits.

The largest PC vendor's fourth quarter results beat analyst expectations today, and the company offered a solid outlook for the next quarter.

Arun Sarin has told the Financial Times that he has nothing to fear from Apple's iPhone/iTunes combination, or Google's Android, or even Nokia's Ovi, as no one can ever take their customers' billing relationship away from them. Bless.

And finally

The web is abuzz about Comet Holmes, no relation to Katie. Comet 17P/Holmes had been expected to make just another routine ultra low visibility departure from perihelion passage this year.

But in a record for a comet, it unexpectedly brightened by a factor of around a million on 24 October, making it more reminiscent of a stellar nova explosion. This isn't the first time it has happened, but the reason for the brightening is still mysterious. ®

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