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Confidential Home Office data turns up in laptop on eBay

But encrypted this time

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Yet more confidential UK government files may have been mislaid by public servants. However, in a sign that Whitehall may be raising its game slightly, this time the data was encrypted - and the copies originally lost have been recovered.

The Guardian reports today that a small IT-repair firm near Bolton received a laptop on Tuesday from a customer who said it had been bought on eBay. When the laptop was opened up by an engineer, an optical disk marked "Home Office" and "Confidential" was discovered under the keyboard.

Lee Bevan of Leapfrog computers told the Graun: "This seemed like just another IT repair... the customer said he had bought it on eBay and seemed quite innocent. It was just an ordinary laptop and it was only when we opened up the keyboard that we found the disk - it had the words Home Office and Confidential written on it.

"The disk appeared to be hidden deliberately underneath the keyboard. We put the disk in the drive to see what it was, but it was encrypted.

"As soon as I saw it belonged to the Home Office I placed it in the company safe and called the police. Luckily, it has ended up in the right hands. The police were here most of the day examining the laptop and the disk."

According to the Home Office, both the optical disk and the laptop hard drive were encrypted, though it was not confirmed that the laptop was definitely government property. It is not yet known how the machine and disk had wound up on eBay.

The Home Office said the fact the data was encrypted "safeguarded" it, which is broadly true. Assuming properly-implemented modern encryption, it would be practically impossible to read the files on a laptop or disk without possession of the relevant keys.

However, in certain unusual circumstances a savvy attacker can lift the keys from computer memory. More plausibly, keys are often written down and carried about together with laptops, are easily guessed, or otherwise discovered.

The possibility also exists of the encrypted government files having been copied, which is much easier than decrypting them - although not as trivially easy as copying normal unprotected files.

Another thing to bear in mind, of course, is that all the data may have already been lost in other massive governmant data blunders of recent times; which would make this incident rather irrelevant. It may be that someone pinched a Home Office laptop and thought "chuh, another laptop and disk with everyone's personal data. I've got the whole UK on file already, I'll just sell the gear on eBay". ®

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