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Doubt cast over ContactPoint security assurances

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A UK government minister has issued assurances about the security of the government's child protection database ContactPoint, but the minister's assurances are incomplete, if not misguided, says one expert.

The ContactPoint system is designed to give social workers, police and NHS staff access to case files on children, so that a full case history of potentially vulnerable kids is easily available to authorised parties. ContactPoint, as is often the case with government IT systems, has been repeatedly delayed, and is currently undergoing testing trials with local authorities.

Responding to questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Beverley Hughes, secretary of state at the Department of Children, Schools and Families, sought to allay concerns that the system might be open to unauthorised access. Hughes said that penetration tests on the system had taken place, results of which she didn't intend to make public, before answering questions about security of remote access to the system.

Practitioners will be able to access ContactPoint remotely (i.e. from locations other than local authority, health service or national partner organisations premises) only via secure remote access solutions authorised and provided by those organisations and compliant with the ContactPoint security policy. Technical security measures prevent access from unsecured wireless broadband or public locations such as internet cafes and wireless "hotspots".

Furthermore users of the database will be unable to save data onto USB keys or other forms of removable media, Hughes added.

ContactPoint has been purposely designed so that users are not able to download information from the database onto removable media such a portable storage device or a laptop computer.

A full transcript of the exchange can be found in an extract of Hansard here.

However a penetration testing expert, who requested anonymity, said the minister's reassurance ignored the awkward point that many government computers are infected by malware.

"Local authorities and health service organisations are notoriously open and insecure. 'Remote access' infers that mobile users will be given access, typically laptop users.

"The remote access mechanism may be secure, but that doesn't stop the laptop itself being vulnerable, and acting as a conduit to the database, via a back door or otherwise."

Our source also cast doubt over assurances that users used be unable to download data from the database. "It is extremely difficult to prevent an application user downloading or otherwise storing database content locally, so I doubt that the ministers views reflect the real implementation of the system."

Establishing the database for the estimated 55,000 children in England and Wales that need to be enrolled will cost around £224m. Maintaining ContactPoint will cost a further £44m a year. If elected, the Conservatives have promised to scrap the system. ®

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