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Running queries on the HMRC database fiasco

Dis-information systems management

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Comment When it comes to talking about last week's data loss by the HMRC, I was told not to use precious words outlining my feelings of rage and bafflement that a government body can be so cavalier with so much data because, presumably, we all feel the same.

So I will simply note, for the record, that my gob has been totally smacked by this debacle. What I will do is to take a look at the technical elements of this case from the database/data perspective.

First, what was the data format?

Data transfer between systems is typically effected using a simple data format such as CSV or XML, especially if the target and source databases are hosted on different engines (XML seems less likely in this case since that would imply a department that had made it into the 21st century). It is also possible that a format such as an Access .MDB or an .XLS file was used and the data batched over several files. The bottom line is that it is unlikely to be the raw tables from an IMS database.

Of course, "they" won't tell us and, in fairness, they shouldn't. The disks are still missing and it would simply compound the disaster to supply information that would help any black hats that stumble across the data.

The bottom line is that until we are given evidence to the contrary, we can assume a fairly simple format.

Next, the level of encryption.

It is not clear how well the data was protected. Rather worryingly, the term being bandied around is "password protected" rather than "encrypted". Of course, the very fact that we are in the middle of this shambles tells us we are dealing with technically incompetent people, so they may simply not be able to distinguish between the terms. We are almost certainly not talking about RSA encryption here. However, as we are all aware, it is often the human element that torpedoes a technically secure system and the anecdotal information coming out suggests this is an area of considerable concern.

The TimesOnLine reports that:

Shawn Williams, of Rose, Williams and Partners, a legal firm in Wolverhampton that deals with tax fraud cases, said his firm frequently received discs that contained personal data from the HMRC with the password included. 'Sometimes there is no security at all, sometimes there are instructions telling you how to access the data, sometimes the password is just written on a compliments slip and included with the disc'.

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