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MoD laptop losses expose government data indifference

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The latest data giveaway by the UK's Ministry of Defence shows that not even the most basic IT policies are being followed.

There are various ways to ensure laptops do not go astray when loaded up with sensitive information. The most basic is that such information should not be on any machine unless absolutely necessary. The second policy would be to take some action to ensure the laptop was kept physically safe - so leaving such a laptop in an empty car overnight is probably not a good idea.

Assuming one or both of these steps were followed, the MoD could then use various types of technology to ensure the data was safe if the worst did happen and the machine was stolen - it could password protect the machine and it could encrypt the data.

Gus O'Donnell, the man leading the investigation into government data handling, said in December's interim report that the MOD had no major problems except around bulk data transfers. The department, we were told, had "reassessed its policies and procedures in light of the incident with HMRC data, and is taking forward work to ensure that bulk data transfers are better protected and will make more explicit the need for early involvement of Data Protection Act specialists".

In the wake of the latest MoD loss, the government has sparked a feeding-frenzy for the IT security industry by seizing all government laptops which could contain sensitive data and impounding them until civil servants have learnt how to encrypt, and unencrypt, the data on their machines.

But maybe government should start with the obvious. Phil O'Neil, director and general manager of Kensington Europe, said: "It seems that, even though people know laptops can be easily stolen or lost... The best way to make sure that sensitive data does not fall into the wrong hands is to ensure that the device itself cannot be stolen.

"It is increasingly clear that companies are neglecting the most obvious threats to their security. Businesses invest millions in network security, yet they disregard the danger of physical theft. This is tantamount to investing in a sophisticated home alarm system but forgetting to lock the front door."

The Cabinet Office cannot tell us how many machines or people this laptop recall might include - it sends out the diktats, but does not do the maths. Individual departments are responsible for recalling the machines and training their staff.

Despite promises after the HMRC debacle, the Information Commissioner remains powerless - although Gordon Brown said he supported giving it the power to investigate government departments without consent - but the ICO is still negotiating exactly how this would work.

It is unclear just how much data the government still has which it hasn't given away or lost.

In October, 25 million people had their child benefit records given away. Last year, the Lib Dems estimated that some 37 million British citizens had private data lost by the UK government - the data was not perfect in that it failed to remove people who had had their data given away more than once.

But it supports the notion that more British people have had their information compromised or given away by the British government than have had it kept safe.

With preparations like this, we should all be more than ready to hand over our personal data to the proposed national ID scheme - after all, the data can't be that personal if the government has already given it away. ®

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