GCHQ loses Top Secret laptops
And struggles to recruit net experts
It is the secretive heart of government information security, dispensing advice and setting standards throughout officialdom, but GCHQ's "cavalier" in-house policies have come under fire in a report revealing it lost 35 laptops.
Three of the missing machines were certified to hold Top Secret material, according to the annual report of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC).
The losses date back to before 2005, and GCHQ said it now believes the resulting risk is low and it has no evidence that secret material was compromised. Seven out of 35 have since been recovered.
The losses are nevertheless likely to be viewed as very embarrassing at the intelligence agency's Cheltenham HQ. The ISC, a cross-party group of senior MPs that reports to the Prime Minister rather than Parliament, said processes for logging the allocation and location of laptops had been "haphazard" and "not sufficiently robust".
Iain Lobban, director of GCHQ since July 2008, admitted to the ISC that agency laptop policies were lax.
"Historically, we just checked them in and checked them out and updated the records when they went through our... laptop control process," he said.
"I think perhaps some people perhaps took slightly hasty decisions without due process."
Lobban said an internal review had resulted in new procedures that not only allocate laptops, but also annually audit their location.
"Not only do we need to check them when they are moving in and out of the building, but at a particular point in the year we are going to check to say we know exactly where every single one is," he said.
The Committee responded: "This formerly cavalier attitude towards valuable and sensitive assets was unacceptable. Now that proper processes have been introduced, we trust that this problem will not arise again."
The report covers an eight-month period up to July 2009, and reveals GCHQ's struggles to recruit internet security staff.
"Work to tackle the threat of electronic attack is about a third below the level planned," it said.
"We have been told that the shortfall is because of the difficulties GCHQ has had in recruiting and retaining skilled internet specialists in sufficient numbers – although specialist recruitment campaigns have been set up to try and address this problem."
The agency is currently undergoing a massive rewiring to allow it to intercept and analyse more intelligence from internet communications. This includes the Mastering the Internet programme, revealed by The Register last year.
The ISC reported the "critical weaknesses" GCHQ admitted to in its approach to contract management had been addressed. Mastering the Internet, the cost of which is understood to run into hundreds of millions of pounds, involves contractors including Detica, HP and Lockheed-Martin.
"It is also essential that the work is effectively overseen," the Committee warned.
Elsewhere its report revealed that MI5, the Security Service, plans to build four new data halls at its data centre by 2011. ®
"Struggles to recruit net experts"
Has the desire to know every miniscule detail about every person in the UK started to backfire on GCHQ and the Intelligence Services?
Senior Spook A : "Why haven't you filled this vacancy for a junior spook?"
Spook B : "None of the candidates were suitable sir."
Spook A : "But there were hundreds of applicants! They can't all be unsuitable?"
Spook B: "Candidate 1 used to be a Hunt Sab, Candidate 2 downloads extreme pr0n, Candidate 3 votes Lib Dem, Candidate 4 once stood near an anti-war protester..."
Pretty much everyone has an embarrassing secret or two. When the state knows them all, how can it recruit anyone?
It's more mundane than that even - you can only fail for an error in the paperwork.
They want to hire people with higher degrees, so you have been living in rented accomodation for 7-8 years. If you can't remember the postcode of a flat you shared for a term as an undergrad you fail.
I interned with a similar bunch as a student many years ago.
The security people were out of the 1930s.
They had no concept of a normal school - they were asking me on whether my 'house master' ever talked about politics. And whether I knew any socialists - this was in a comprehensive in Sheffield in the 80s!
It was before electronic border records so they wanted to know the exact dates you had ever been out of the country and where you had stayed. In case on a 2 week camping holiday in France as a kid I had been recruited and trained as a KGB spy.
Even after the wall came down you weren't allowed to visit the FORMER east germany.
You had to fill in a form if you met or spoke to pretty much any foreigner - in a university!
AIUI, it's not so much whether the vetters know your murky secrets, but whether you are prepared to cough to them, which means that if you forget to mention one that they do know about, they'll bounce you.
Plus see ACs comment below about pernickety verifiable history. But then again, it's GCHQ, and they take their vetting process extremely seriously, so much so that if you have already been positively vetted, they'll do a refresh before you even get through the door.
Makes it a pisser for them to get contractors in, or so I hear.