Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2007/11/21/reader_comments_on_hmrc/

Darling's Data giveaway - what the readers say

Civil servants divulge all

By John Oates

Posted in Government, 21st November 2007 13:02 GMT

UK Identity Crisis More than 200 Register readers have commented on our stories on Alistair Darling's great data giveway. Many pointed out that this loss does little to increase confidence in government's ability to care for our personal information - even without creating a national ID database.

One Reg reader said:

"It is perfectly safe to entrust your confidential data to the government." How many times do you hear it said? Your DNA is safe. Your Oyster card data is safe. Your DVLA info safe.

How DUMB are we to believe them? This is proof that we shouldn't trust them.


Several readers had snippets of insider information to share. One civil servant said:

As a "overpaid" and "over-pensioned" civil servant myself, I can't say that this case comes as any great surprise.

Anyway, as I'm a "junior official" too, here's my best guess at the "facts":

First off, all established Civil Servants are bound by the Official Secrets Act 1989.

By the sound of it, the "junior official" in this case is most likely an Admin Assistant or an Admin Officer earning no more than £18,716 max (London Weighting not applicable in this case). Hardly a fortune (http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/jobs/salaries.htm)

Same Junior official would have been told to send CDs to NAO by his manager - following orders. It happens a lot when you have a grade hierarchy in any organisation but why everyone is whining about this poor sod, I don't know - If NAO needs access to the complete Child Benefit database to undertake an audit then someone at HMRC needs to have access to the complete database - why shouldn't it be a "junior official" with special access, provided to him by his manager and authorised at a higher level? Hardly a "taxing" job (sorry bout the pun) and certainly not one it's necessary to have a high grade to undertake. I strongly suspect this unfortunate bugger was only doing what he/she had been doing for years. It's not him/her that lost the CDs - that is TNTs fault alone.

All the Civil Service depts I've worked in outsource their courier - and like any other business, this generally goes to the cheapest bid - common practise. In this case TNT. I suspect the Security Service, MOD, GCHQ etc... do not use a private contactor but I could be wrong.

I have a strong suspicion this information couldn't be sent electronically as it's common for civil service depts to put a 4MB limit on email attachments (they use the GTN so it's a secure VPN (run by Cable & Wireless if you must know)) and they won't have any other means of electronically sending such a large volume of data or they would have used it - my department has no network access to NAO systems, I doubt any department does.

I'd bet cash money that the database lost was a .mdb file

Anyway - contrary to what I've said here, I'm not defending the civil service. Officers are sacked every week for computer misuse and data protection breaches. I'm a signed up member of NO2ID because there's no way in Hell I'd trust this government, and the civil service I work for to keep an ID card database secure. If you've got an ounce of sense, you wouldn't trust them either.

Staying anonymous for fear of helicopters.


Another civil servant chipped in with:

I work for HMRC (no not in the Child Benefit Office) and I will let you know why the data was sent in CD format - the simple reason is that the vast majority of staff DO NOT have an external email address so they can email info to people outside of HMRC.

This ignores the fact that the person who sent (more than once !) the info hadnt read the briefings about Data Security ( am an old fart who has) and I know what I can/cant send.

I am not sorry to see the boss go, but at least he has more integrity than any of our elected leaders.

One reader responded to APACS claim that the information lost was not enough to commit fraud:

A friend of mine (over retirement age) was stuck up a mountain in Spain recently, with weather causing power cuts and an intermittent phone connection.

He'd never set up phone or internet banking with his bank but it was desperately urgent that he arrange the transfer of some funds to someone else via BACS.

I was able, on his behalf (posing as him in an entirely innocent exercise), able to transfer over 500 quid with only the following information:

Name

Address

Sort Code/Account Number

Date of Birth

Branch account was opened at (correctly guessed it was the one closest to his address)

Last transaction (as it happened I'd myself just sent him some money - wouldn't be hard for a scammer to pay a tiny amount in to the account and then quote it as the last transaction to get much more out).

I only did this because we were both pretty sure that my saying that I was doing it on behalf of someone else wouldn't get anywhere. And I wanted to see what would happen, as an academic exercise.

But I was amazed and fairly shocked that it actually worked!"


An ex-HRMC worker said:

I used to work at HMRC - although not at the Child Benefit Office. The 'it was a junior member of staff' argument is bogus. Junior and middle-ranking staff there don't have floppy drive or CD read access for security reasons. Most lack external email. They definitely don't have CD burning capabilities and certainly lack access to a complete copy of a key system database. Simply to have the ability to copy the database onto disc as has been described would require a level of privilege more in keeping with somebody in a fairly senior position.

Another government employee:

If I had a pound for every senior manager who knows nothing about IT, I wouldn't have to work again. They keep their default passwords, demand that security controls are circumvented when it doesn't suit what they want to do, or it's inconvenient, and generally act like children. There is where the blame lies for this.

Please don't just slag off "civil servants" - there's a world of difference between the senior Sir Humphreys and the poor donkey workers at the bottom just trying to keep their heads above water and the service to the public decent while their jobs disappear all around them. Meanwhile £££s are spent on consultants to tell us what we already know......

We caught a senior manager the other week taking 4 minutes to figure out why he couldn't make the guillotine work....he had it upside down!

The Peter Principle is most definitely alive and well.


Finally a comment from another reader warning that other government organisations are just as bad at protecting data.

Snail mailing CDs/DVDs is standard practise in local authorities. The way it goes is:

1) Database backups are incredibly compressible, so use one from last night

2) Zip it down, and optionally password protect it

3) Whack it in a jiffy bag, write "With care - optical disks" on the back

4) Send it first class

5) Job's a good 'un

This is used for most data transfers of any size - If the bad guys want to intercept these, all they have to do is work out how to access the snail mail of the companies who wrote commonly used (by LAs) financial packages and grab anything with a disk in it. If they can't crack a pkzip password then they don't deserve to steal other people's hard-earned.

But wait - It gets worse.

There is a requirement for 24*365 access to some sensitive social services information that lists, for instance, adults who are a known danger to children and similar (schedule 1, section 48-kind of stuff for the knossers out there) - the kind of thing that the News of the World would pay dearly for - that can become unavailable due to planned network outages and similar.

What to do? If it becomes unavailable it potentially puts vulnerable children at risk, which is bad enough, but worse yet it would be a breach of SLA which would cost whichever outsourcer is involved yer actual money, which is totally unacceptable.

The answer is, incredibly, to set up a local copy at the office that maintains access to this information. At worst this involves putting a copy of the entire social services database, together with the necessary front ends, on a laptop... Unencrypted! In my experience they do secure the laptop - With that criminals nemesis, the Kensington laptop cable lock. Ha!

However, it doesn't stop there. Local Authorities are perennially strapped for cash, so they are always tempted by the lowest bid, come contract renewal time. What they don't tell their ratepayers is that the way the outsourcer achieves this low cost is to send as much of the contract as possible overseas, principally to India, but East Europe is making a late run here as well.

This is serious. Local Authorities hold as much or more information on their residents as was on the disks that the revenue just mislaid, except for the very few sane ratepayers who conduct ALL financial transactions with their LA in cash. They keep ALL payment information, including verification codes, on their (unencrypted) databases, many of which are maintained from overseas locations famous for their selling of "private" financial data.

The problem with this is that the ratepayer has no option but to deal with their LA. You might decide to bank with, say, Barclays, and accept the risk that their Indian operations represent. You may like the low prices charged by, say, 3 Mobile, and again accept the risk. The point is that you have a choice and can take your business elsewhere if you object to offshoring for any reason. Try that with your local council and see where it gets you. You are required to either pay in cash, or take whatever risk the council has decided that you will accept.

The Inland Revenues loss is big, flashy, and newsworthy. However, don't forget that it was mislaid inside the IRs (outsourced, naturally) "private" postal service, thus is unlikely to have ended up in the hands of fraudsters. Think instead about how many people's personal and financial details are either put at risk by "least cost" thinking, or by being made available to technicians in far away lands of which we know little, except that some of them are so bent that when they die they have to be screwed into the ground.

Posted as AC for obvious reasons.

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