HMRC data security scandal debate - still no mandatory use of encryption

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The latest Labour party financial funding scandal seem to be obsessing the "Westminster Village" and has overshadowed yesterday's Opposition debate on the ongoing scandal at Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling admitted that the missing CD discs have still not been found or accounted for. He seems to be obsessed with the review of the data security and privacy procedures at HMRC which Kieran Poynter (see the Terms of Reference for this HMRC only review, and the other one across all Government departments, being conducted by Robert Hannigan, Head of Intelligence, Security and Resilience at the Cabinet Office)

Alistair Darling's response in the Opposition debate in the Commons on the HMRC scandal yesterday, contained a dozen references to this Keiran Poynter led review.

The junior Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Jane Kennedy , who appeared so clueless on Newsnight opposite Professor Ross Anderson, did give some more details about the current changes to procedure at HMRC prior to the results of the review.

28 Nov 2007 : Column 344

[...]

The motion asks what policy changes will be introduced to protect the public in future. First, HMRC has immediately communicated to all staff three key steps that must be followed. Transfers must take place only if they are absolutely necessary, written authorisation for the transfer must be given by a senior HMRC manager and a clear instruction must be given regarding the appropriate standard of protection for the transfer. Where directors decide that a data transfer by disc is absolutely unavoidable, such media must in every case be securely encrypted at the appropriate level. Those changes are already in place.

[...]

A number of hon. Members raised proper questions on the steps that we are taking on encryption. It may be of interest to the House to hear what has been done. HMRC has established a central team to handle encryption on behalf of the organisation, to ensure that the proper deployment of encryption is used at the appropriate level. All bulk transfers of sensitive data using CDs are being encrypted and password protected where necessary. Those procedures were implemented on 21 November. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Hon.

28 Nov 2007 : Column 345

This policy change still says nothing about mandatory encryption of all sensitive data on say, laptop computers or USB memory devices or via email, or extending such encryption policy to third parties like the KPMG sub-contract auditors to the National Audit Office.

George Osborne for the Conservative Official Opposition quoted some further, by comparison minor, but still, to the public totally unacceptable, data security breaches during the massive "apology letter"mailshot to the millions of families affected by this HMRC data security and privacy breach.

28 Nov 2007 : Column 299

We have also discovered that in trying to reassure people, the Treasury appears to have compounded its mistake by sending to some members of the public letters that include the personal details and national insurance numbers of other people. Those are the apology letters. The Financial Secretary shakes her head. She is obviously not aware of what is going on in the country. Let me read a couple of examples that have been brought to my attention. First, a member of the public states:

    “I have just had an apology letter {dated 21 November, 07} from Dave Hartnett {Acting Chairman} of HM Revenue & Customs apologising about the error of losing my personal child benefits data, including my bank account...which I was expecting. However, its ironic...I’ve also received 7 other apology letters that should have been sent to other members of the public in the same predicament! I’ve got all their National Insurance Numbers, their Child Benefit Ref. Number, Name and address. It really is...an absolutely awful mistake when they are trying to reinstill confidence.

    I have of course reported this to the HM Revenue & Customs helpline...I spoke to a gentleman... He made me aware I was not in the minority...this had happened to a number of individuals and asked me to relay the National Insurance No's".

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) brought to my attention another case involving a constituent of his who has just been sent a letter of apology that includes the names and national insurance numbers of someone other than them. The error is being compounded as we speak by the release of such letters. Perhaps the Chancellor could tell us a little more about that when he replies.

Why, exactly, on a letter of apology, was it necessary to print anyone's National Insurance Number (NINO) and Child Benefit Number ?

The concept of minimising the amount of sensitive data transfered via insecure means (the postal system) still does not seem to have filtered through to HMRC.

The failures at HMRC really do seem to be systemic ones:

Mr. Osborne:

[...]

The evidence is compelling. In September 2005, an unencrypted CD-ROM containing the bank details of taxpayers went missing. What did the Treasury say at the time? It said:

    “This is a one-off incident...we are urgently reviewing our procedures to make sure this type of incident does not happen again”.

Of course it did happen again. In May, the details of 42,000 families who are claiming tax credits were sent to the wrong people. The Treasury then said

    “we have robust procedures in place to protect information provided by”

the public. But of course they did not, because earlier this month the national insurance details of a further 15,000 people were lost on a CD-ROM. The Government then said:

    “we have reviewed our arrangements and introduced safeguards to prevent this happening again”.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury for bringing to my attention the case of Mr. Leaver, a constituent of his from Bicester. In July, Her Majesty’s Inspector of Taxes sent two letters apparently intended for Buckinghamshire county council to his home address in Bicester. They contained the names and national insurance numbers of all the employees who had recently left that council. Mr. Leaver phoned Her Majesty’s Inspector of Taxes and was told, “We are very grateful for your telling us this. We will correct the error.” He

28 Nov 2007 : Column 302

has subsequently received five more letters. My hon. Friend raised this with HMRC, which confirmed that that was the case, and having looked into the matter, it said:

    “We did indeed hold an incorrect address for Buckinghamshire County Council.”

Mr. Philip Hammond (Runnymede and Weybridge) (Con): In Oxfordshire.

George Osborne also reminded us that the previous review into the cockups and criminal fraud at HMRC regarding tax credits, i.e. the Cosby Review, is still being kept secret.

28 Nov 2007 : Column 303

[...]

The Chancellor will no doubt tell us about the fact that the chairman of PricewaterhouseCoopers has been asked to conduct yet another review of HMRC’s security procedures. Will he confirm that we are still awaiting the results of the previous one? Does he remember something called the Crosby review? It was set up last year to explain how HMRC’s tax credits system had been defrauded of £1.7 billion. Parliament was promised the report this summer, and I know that Labour Members were eagerly awaiting its arrival so that they could read it during their summer break. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury disappointed us, saying that it would arrive later in the summer, but we are now approaching December and there is still no sign of it.

The Liberal Democrat acting leader Dr. Vince Cable, made some good points, and called for a review of the weak Data Protection Act 1998, calling for a more effective right of citizens to see and correct Government data on them, and for penalties for HMRC or other negligent data managers, who are currently above the law.

28 Nov 2007 : Column 315

[...]

Dr. Cable: Indeed. It is a question not just of the size of databases but of the whole system and the interconnection between them, with the risks multiplying many times over.

My next point relates to what this sorry episode suggests to us about data protection legislation. The subject arouses great annoyance in many quarters, and I believe that the Conservatives have suggested that they will repeal the data protection legislation. There is an appalling contrast between how individuals encounter the workings of the Data Protection Act 1998, which are about form filling and obstruction, and what members of the public see in the conduct of government, which is inefficiency and leakage. That lack of balance and accountability is at the heart of a great deal of disillusionment. In the light of that, I wonder whether we should return to the 1998 Act and introduce some

28 Nov 2007 : Column 316

new principles, one of which is that individuals should have access to the data that the Government hold on them and the right to correct that data.

Another principle that stems directly from the current affair is that where data managers have committed serious errors or been negligent they should be open to some penalty. Apparently no penalty currently exists. It might have been a bit of a joke that the Metropolitan police were fined several hundred thousand pounds for the shooting of de Menezes, but the data managers in HMRC face no penalties whatever under existing legislation. Surely that should be addressed.

It still appears that backbench Labour MPs like Kali Mountford, still persist in their mistaken beliefs about "biometrics":

We cannot leave home without our biometrics; they are with us always. To say that, because of this one mistake-- [ Interruption. ] It is a huge mistake; I do not take issue with that fact. But however big it is, and wherever those discs are, my biometrics are with me now, and no one can take them off me. Wherever I go, they are with me. I could go into a bank and put my fingerprint down, but it would not be on that database because it would be separate from my biographical details.

28 Nov 2007 : Column 319

She still does not understand the basics about biometrics and databases and what is being proposed by her Government regarding the centralised biometric National Identity Register.

"Biometrics" as used in, say, fingerprint scanners, are not magically withdrawn from the scanner machine or the database which it is connected to when you take your hand physically off the device. Such scanners effectively make yet another digital copy of an image of, say, your fingerprints.

She still does not appear to understand that such biometric technology cannot be used securely from your home PC via the internet or over a mobile phone, simply because the equipment under your control cannot be trusted by the system not to have been compromised by a computer virus or physically tampered with by criminals.

Kali Mountford was suspended from the House of Commons for 5 days in 1998, for leaking an advance copy of the then Social Security Committee report on the taxation of Child Benefit to the then Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown's Parliamentary Private Secretary Denis Toughig. - BBC report

Are there other people out there who agree that: HMRC Is Shite - a blog "dedicated to the taxpayers of Britain, and the employees of the HMRC, who have to endure the monumental shambles that is Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC)."

2 Comments

i was at airdrie library yesterday (monklands scotland) and the assistant told me that one of their computers was stolen by a memeber of the public. how they managed to get it out unnoticed is hard to understand. the day before i was in the same library and the computer i logged onto displayed someone elses email account which meant i had access to this persons emails. i immediately reported it to the staff at the library who explained that maybe the previous user didn,t log off properly. surely this shouldn,t be able to happen. i could have read this persons emails. there must be something seriously wrong with the security of the computers at the library. anybody else out there experienced this lapse in security?

I had to laugh at that bit about Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

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HMRC is shite - "dedicated to the taxpayers of Britain, and the employees of the HMRC, who have to endure the monumental shambles that is Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs (HMRC)."

Head of Legal - Carl Gardner a former legal advisor to the Government

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World's First Fascist Democracy - blog with link to a Google map - "This map is an attempt to take a UK wide, geographical view, of both the public and the personal effect of State sponsored fear and distrust as seen through the twisted technological lens of petty officials and would be bureaucrats nationwide."

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No CCTV - The Campaign against CCTV

Barcode Nation - keeping two eyes on the database state.

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notes from the ubiquitous surveillance society - blog by Dr. David Murakami Wood, editor of the online academic journal Surveillance and Society

Justin Wylie's political blog

Panopticon blog - by Timothy Pitt-Payne and Anya Proops. Timothy Pitt-Payne is probably the leading legal expert on the UK's Freedom of Information Act law, often appearing on behlaf of the Information Commissioner's Office at the Information Tribunal.

Armed and Dangerous - Sex, software, politics, and firearms. Life’s simple pleasures… - by Open Source Software advocate Eric S. Raymond.

Georgetown Security Law Brief - group blog by the Georgetown Law Center on National Security and the Law , at Georgtown University, Washington D.C, USA.

Big Brother Watch - well connected with the mainstream media, this is a campaign blog by the TaxPayersAlliance, which thankfully does not seem to have spawned Yet Another Campaign Organisation as many Civil Liberties groups had feared.

Spy on Moseley - "Sparkbrook, Springfield, Washwood Heath and Bordesley Green. An MI5 Intelligence-gathering operation to spy on Muslim communities in Birmingham is taking liberties in every sense" - about 150 ANPR CCTV cameras funded by Home Office via the secretive Terrorism and Allied Matters (TAM) section of ACPO.

FitWatch blog - keeps an eye on the activities of some of the controversial Police Forward Intelligence Teams, who supposedly only target "known troublemakers" for photo and video surveillance, at otherwise legal, peaceful protests and demonstrations.

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UK Legislation

The United Kingdom suffers from tens of thousands of pages of complicated criminal laws, and thousands of new, often unenforceable criminal offences, which have been created as a "Pretend to be Seen to Be Doing Something" response to tabloid media hype and hysteria, and political social engineering dogmas. These overbroad, catch-all laws, which remove the scope for any judicial appeals process, have been rubber stamped, often without being read, let alone properly understood, by Members of Parliament.

The text of many of these Acts of Parliament are now online, but it is still too difficult for most people, including the police and criminal justice system, to work out the cumulative effect of all the amendments, even for the most serious offences involving national security or terrorism or serious crime.

Many MPs do not seem to bother to even to actually read the details of the legislation which they vote to inflict on us.

UK Legislation Links

UK Statute Law Database - is the official revised edition of the primary legislation of the United Kingdom made available online, but it is not yet up to date.

UK Commissioners

UK Commissioners some of whom are meant to protect your privacy and investigate abuses by the bureaucrats.

UK Intelligence Agencies

Intelligence and Security Committee - the supposedly independent Parliamentary watchdog which issues an annual, heavily censored Report every year or so. Currently chaired by the Conservative Sir Malcolm Rifkind. Why should either the intelligence agencies or the public trust this committee, when the untrustworthy ex-Labour Minister Hazel Blears is a member ?

Anti-terrorism hotline - links removed in protest at the Climate of Fear propaganda posters

MI5 Security Service
MI5 Security Service - links to encrypted reporting form removed in protest at the Climate of Fear propaganda posters

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Secure Your Fertiliser - advice on ammonium nitrate and urea fertiliser security

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Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure - "CPNI provides expert advice to the critical national infrastructure on physical, personnel and information security, to protect against terrorism and other threats."

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Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) recruitment.

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Government Communications Headquarters GCHQ

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National Crime Agency - the replacement for the Serious Organised Crime Agency

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Defence Advisory (DA) Notice system - voluntary self censorship by the established UK press and broadcast media regarding defence and intelligence topics via the Defence, Press and Broadcasting Advisory Committee.

Foreign Spies / Intelliegence Agencies in the UK

It is not just the UK government which tries to snoop on British companies, organisations and individuals, the rest of the world is constantly trying to do the same, regardless of the mixed efforts of our own UK Intelligence Agencies who are paid to supposedly protect us from them.

For no good reason, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office only keeps the current version of the London Diplomatic List of accredited Diplomats (including some Foreign Intelligence Agency operatives) online.

Presumably every mainstream media organisation, intelligence agency, serious organised crime or terrorist gang keeps historical copies, so here are some older versions of the London Diplomatic List, for the benefit of web search engine queries, for those people who do not want their visits to appear in the FCO web server logfiles or those whose censored internet feeds block access to UK Government websites.

Campaign Button Links

Watching Them, Watching Us - UK Public CCTV Surveillance Regulation Campaign
UK Public CCTV Surveillance Regulation Campaign

NO2ID Campaign - cross party opposition to the NuLabour Compulsory Biometric ID Card
NO2ID Campaign - cross party opposition to the NuLabour Compulsory Biometric ID Card and National Identity Register centralised database.

Gary McKinnon is facing extradition to the USA under the controversial Extradition Act 2003, without any prima facie evidence or charges brought against him in a UK court. Try him here in the UK, under UK law.
Gary McKinnon is facing extradition to the USA under the controversial Extradition Act 2003, without any prima facie evidence or charges brought against him in a UK court. Try him here in the UK, under UK law.

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FreeFarid.com - Kafkaesque extradition of Farid Hilali under the European Arrest Warrant to Spain

Peaceful resistance to the curtailment of our rights to Free Assembly and Free Speech in the SOCPA Designated Area around Parliament Square and beyond
Parliament Protest blog - resistance to the Designated Area restricting peaceful demonstrations or lobbying in the vicinity of Parliament.

Petition to the European Commission and European Parliament against their vague Data Retention plans
Data Retention is No Solution - Petition to the European Commission and European Parliament against their vague Data Retention plans.

Save Parliament: Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill (and other issues)
Save Parliament - Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill (and other issues)

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Open Rights Group

The Big Opt Out Campaign - opt out of having your NHS Care Record medical records and personal details stored insecurely on a massive national centralised database.

Tor - the onion routing network
Tor - the onion routing network - "Tor aims to defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal anonymity and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security. Communications are bounced around a distributed network of servers called onion routers, protecting you from websites that build profiles of your interests, local eavesdroppers that read your data or learn what sites you visit, and even the onion routers themselves."

Tor - the onion routing network
Anonymous Blogging with Wordpress and Tor - useful Guide published by Global Voices Advocacy with step by step software configuration screenshots (updated March 10th 2009).

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Amnesty International's irrepressible.info campaign

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BlogSafer - wiki with multilingual guides to anonymous blogging

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NGO in a box - Security Edition privacy and security software tools

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Home Office Watch blog, "a single repository of all the shambolic errors and mistakes made by the British Home Office compiled from Parliamentary Questions, news reports, and tip-offs by the Liberal Democrat Home Affairs team."

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Reporters Without Borders - Reporters Sans Frontières - campaign for journalists 'and bloggers' freedom in repressive countries and war zones.

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Committee to Protect Bloggers - "devoted to the protection of bloggers worldwide with a focus on highlighting the plight of bloggers threatened and imprisoned by their government."

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Icelanders are NOT terrorists ! - despite Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling's use of anti-terrorism legislation to seize the assets of Icelandic banks.

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No CCTV - The Campaign Against CCTV

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I'm a Photographer Not a Terrorist !

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Power 2010 cross party, political reform campaign

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Cracking the Black Box - "aims to expose technology that is being used in inappropriate ways. We hope to bring together the insights of experts and whistleblowers to shine a light into the dark recesses of systems that are responsible for causing many of the privacy problems faced by millions of people."

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Open Rights Group - Petition against the renewal of the Interception Modernisation Programme

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WhistleblowersUK.org - Fighting for justice for whistleblowers