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MPs' Pretty Good Privacy 'ban' finally explained

Parliament misunderstands privacy, not for the first time

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MPs have been told once again that they can't use PGP to encrypt their email because of supposed compatibility problems between the encryption software and VPN remote access software installed on parliamentary computers.

PGP explains that this prohibition by parliamentary technicians stemmed from a snag in using the PGP email proxy and an outdated version of the Infoexpress VPN client used by MPs. The latest versions of both packages would have worked together, but Commons techies chose to advise against using PGP in favour of a different product instead.

Francis Maude, shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, who has repeatedly asked questions on the subject since March, tabled another query on Thursday (12 November). Lib Dem MP Nick Harvey responded with the now stock answer that PGP doesn't mix with the software on MPs' PCs. An extract from Hansard (below) records the exchange.

Mr. Maude: To ask the hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission pursuant to the answer of 13 October 2009, Official Report, column 781W, on Members: email, if the Commission will make it its policy to allow Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) software to be installed on hon. Members' computers and ensure that hon. Members' computers are compatible with PGP software. [299324]

Nick Harvey: No. The service provider has told us that this product is not compatible with software used by Parliament.

PGP has repeatedly said there's nothing about its encryption software that ought to preclude its use with VPN remote software, which is a different type of security application.

Previous Commons replies to the same question have revealed that an evaluation by the Parliamentary ICT (PICT) department found Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) to be "incompatible with Parliament’s current version of VPN (remote access) software". A different package was recommended as an alternative and offered to MPs at no cost.

PGP's response (below) to our latest query on the cryptographic conundrum reveals that Commons techies came across a compatibility problem between an old version of the supported VPN software and the then current version of PGP. No compatibility problem existed between the current versions of each package either at the time of the evaluation or now.

However since no re-evaluation has taken place, the Parliamentary ICT (PICT) department continues to advise MPs against using PGP.

We have investigated the problem that Parliament was having. In March 2007, they asked our technical support team about an incompatibility between the PGP email proxy and the Infoexpress VPN client they were using. At the time, our tech support told them that there was an updated version that fixed the incompatibility. The current versions of PGP and Infoexpress are still compatible.

We understand the difficulty in upgrading systems, especially with software like VPN clients, which when they don't work can't be fixed remotely. Nonetheless, there were and are compatible versions of PGP and Infoexpress available and in use today. Upon review it is our understanding that there are no incompatibility issues that prevent the MP/PICT from using PGP. Any other UK Government or commercial entities can use PGP Corporation's standards based and CAPS certified data protection solutions at this time.

What's never been in doubt is that MPs have a clear need to exchange secure electronic communications with each other and their constituents, using tools such as PGP. This need for confidentiality was highlighted by recent attempts by the Metropolitan Police to get copies of email correspondence between Members of Parliament, without first obtaining a warrant. The police request, made about emails exchanged between Damian Green MP and fellow Tory David Davis, provoked a round of parliamentary questions back in February. ®

Bootnote

Political blogger Dizzy Thinks was the first to report on the issue back in March. However it turns out the PGP prohibition has actually lasted more than two years, as PGP explains.

"A central government agency had an issue back in 2007 but PGP wasn't able to validate that this was the same problem (as the one that was raised in Parliament in 2009) until recently when the PICT confirmed it to be so," it explained.

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