Des Browne now admits to 3 stolen, unencrypted Ministry of Defence recruitment laptop computers

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Secretary of State for Defence Des Browne's statement to the House of Commons this afternoon on the stolen MoD recruitment laptop computer scandal

See: Commons Hansard 21 Jan 2008 : Column 1225 MOD (Data Loss)

  • 153,000 people who submitted detailed application forms
  • 5.700 bank account details
  • Initial belief that the data was encrypted
  • Dubious claim that "the level of encryption used by the Ministry of Defence on its computers is stronger than that used for commercial applications"
  • Dubious implication that MoD encryption systems can actually be broken in practice
  • Admissions that the data was not encrypted at all
  • Blames the media for reporting the leaked information scandal
  • No mention of Army recruits' data, despite the Army handling the data for all three armed services
  • Dubious claim about "no indication" that the data has fallen into terrorist or foreign intelligence agency hands
  • Admission about 2 previous stolen recruitment data laptops
  • Useless Cabinet Office review of data handling
  • Yet Another Review - Sir Edmund Burton
  • No resignations by Ministers or senior MoD staff

Some comments on some extracts from the statement:

As police investigations of the theft are at an active stage, I am limited in what I can say about the incident. It occurred on the night of Wednesday 9 January in Edgbaston, Birmingham. The laptop was left in a car that had been parked overnight and was unattended. That was a breach of security regulations. The stolen laptop contains personal information on about 600,000 people, the majority of whom had simply expressed an interest in joining the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines or the Royal Air Force.

Note that there is no mention of Army recruitment, either here or later on in the statement.

It is not clear to me why recruiting officers routinely carry with them information on such a large number of people--or, indeed, why the database retains such information at all.

The implication of these words is that this data breach involves many more people than just the one Royal Navy officer whose laptop computer was stolen.

A possible reason why military recruitment personnel might feel that they need to have copies of large databases on their laptop computers is that there might be a penny pinching lack of investment in reliable high speed , secure data links from the Careers Offices to the central databases.


The information held is not the same for every individual. In some cases the record may be no more than a name, but I am advised that for about 153,000 people who progressed as far as submitting an application form to join the forces, more extensive personal data are held, including passport details, national insurance numbers, driver’s licence details, family details, doctors’ addresses and national health service numbers; for about 3,700 people, banking details were also included. The records largely date back to 2003, although some records may date back as far as 1997.

This must represent a large proportion of those people who are currently serving, or are recent serving members of the armed forces.

Ministers were informed of the loss of the laptop on Friday 11 January, although at that point it was believed that the data were fully encrypted. That is relevant because the level of encryption used by the Ministry of Defence on its computers is stronger than that used for commercial applications

No it is not ! The best military and commercial applications of encryption produce the same result - information which is unreadable by unauthorised people for the foreseeable future, using all the theoretically available technical and human resources in the universe.

For example, the UK Government approved Killgetty full disk encryption software now uses commercially available AES algorithms to provide the same level of security (up to Top Secret) as previously CESG / GCHQ developed UK Government encryption algorithms.

and our IT authorities judge that a significant amount of time, resources and, in particular, expertise would be needed to access such data in a readable format.

That implies that it may somehow be humanly possible to access Ministry of Defence encrypted data if the such encrypted data fell into the hands of a foreign government.

Is this an admission by Des Browne of failure and a lack of confidence in the Ministry of Defence's encryption systems, or is it simply that he and and his spin doctors are clueless about encryption ?

The fact that the data were not encrypted was reported to Ministers on Monday 14 January.

The laptop was stolen "on the night of Wednesday 9 January", so why did it take 5 days to admit that the data was not encrypted ?

Subsequently, the Information Commissioner and the police authorities were informed, and as an immediate precaution all similar laptops were recalled from their users and secured. That was completed by 18 January.

Exactly many other similar laptop computers are involved ?

The theft is being investigated by the West Midlands police, assisted by the Ministry of Defence police. After consultation with the police about the impact on the investigation were the theft to become public knowledge, I decided not to make a statement to Parliament last Thursday--although I was ready to do so. Unfortunately, news of the theft of the laptop was reported in the media on Friday evening and the MOD was obliged to issue a brief statement setting out the facts of the incident, as they were being reported inaccurately.

Note how Des Browne seems to be blaming the media for reporting the scandal - media spin control seems to have a higher priority than anything else.

Was it the West Midlands Police, the Ministry of Defence Police or other Ministry of Defence sources or Labour party apparatchiki who leaked the story to the mainstream media ?

The intelligence services were also informed, and asked to assess whether the incident could lead to an increased threat to our personnel. Their view, understandably, was that the risk would depend on whether the information fell into the hands of extremists, but that there was no indication that had happened.

It would be extraordinary if the intelligence services did already have evidence of the data being abused by terrorists or foreign intelligence agencies, even before the laptop thieves have been caught or the laptop has been found.

In order to do so, they would have to already have had the laptop thieves under active surveillance and investigation, presumably in the hope of catching bigger fish. If such a sting operation is in progress, then why would they compromise their operational security by telling Des Browne about it ?

We are not convinced that our intelligence agencies (or anybody else's) have magically penetrated all the espionage activities of all our terrorist and foreign intelligence agency enemies. The claim that there is currently "no indication" that the data has fallen into evil hands is weasel worded media spin.

Letters have been sent to all 3,700 people whose bank details were included in the database, and are being sent to the 153,000 people who applied to join the Royal Navy, the Royal Marines or the Royal Air Force during the relevant periods.

Will the MoD repeat the blunders made by HMRC , by sending out excessive personal information in their post data security disaster mailshot ?

Again, there is no mention of Army recruits,

Why should we assume that their details have been handled any more securely given that it is the Army recruiting and training division which keeps the data "on behalf of all three services." - see below !

An internal investigation is also under way by the MOD’s head of security into the wider security issues raised by the loss of the data. In the time available, the investigation has established that in addition to the laptop stolen on 9 January, two further laptops potentially containing similar data have been stolen. A Royal Navy laptop similar to that stolen on 9 January was stolen from a car in Manchester in October 2006, and an Army recruiting laptop, containing details of about 500 individuals, was stolen from a careers office in Edinburgh in December 2005.

Two more stolen not simply mislaid or lost laptop computers with, hopefully not as much personal data stored on them.

These incidents were reported at the time to the local police and to the chain of command, although neither theft was reported to Ministers. Those involved believed that the data were protected by encryption and so no steps were taken to inform those whose records were potentially at risk.

So was the data on these two stolen laptops "protected by encryption" or not ?

The statement casts doubt on this, so it is best to assume that the data in these two previous incidents was not properly encrypted either.

Remember that an encrypted file or encrypted hard disk etc does not adequately protect the data, if the Cryptographic Key Material is also stolen or lost at the same time e.g. if the passphrase scribbled on a post-note, or even, if, say a PGP encryption private keyring is also stored on the same lost or stolen device, or if the associated cryptographic hardware token or smartcard etc. is also lost with the laptop computer.

As I said, our internal investigation has identified weaknesses in the application of MOD security procedures to the database,

What new practical steps were taken after each of these incidents, apart from paying lip service to the existing Standard Operating Procedures and Security Policies ?

This is clearly not just a one off, isolated incident, by an idiotic or perhaps malicious individual Naval Officer, but a systemic failure, for which Ministers and senior officials must take personal responsibility and resign or be disciplined.

which is managed by the Army recruiting and training division on behalf of all three services.

The Army manages the databases for all three services, but there is no mention of any Army recruitment data on this laptop, which seems peculiar.

In the time available, it has not been possible to establish all the facts, but it is clear that the database files were unencrypted, in breach of MoD procedures, and that there were shortcomings in security training and awareness among the relevant staff. Further, although the MOD was a full participant in the Cabinet Office-led review following the loss of data by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the thefts and the failure to comply with agreed MOD procedures for the system were not highlighted by those responsible for the system during the first phase of that review.

So the top officials at the Ministry of Defence have managed to fool themselves, and the interim data handling review by Robert Hannigan at the Cabinet Office, that everything was under control in their bureaucratic empire.

Why should we have any confidence in the other alleged "extremely serious" top level reviews in the other central Government departments ?

Accordingly, following consultation with the Information Commissioner, I have invited Sir Edmund Burton to undertake a full investigation into how these weaknesses came about, including responsibility for any breach of security and accreditation procedures, and to review the steps that we have taken to prevent any recurrence. Sir Edmund is chairman of the Information Assurance Advisory Council and supports the Cabinet Office in the implementation of the Government’s information assurance strategy. He is also a former chairman of the Police Information Technology Organisation and former commandant of the Royal Military College of Science.

Sir Edmund will work closely with those in the Cabinet Office who have been reviewing procedures across Government, following the HMRC loss of data. His report will enable us to answer the questions that still need to be answered. The Information Commissioner has confirmed in particular that the review will be wide enough to address the questions that he has raised, including why a database of this size was thought necessary for field recruitment staff. It will also enable the chain of command to identify where responsibility lies and whether anyone needs to face action as a result. Sir Edmund’s full report will be made available to the Information Commissioner.

Yet Another Review ! Who would have guessed ?

Note that there is no hint of any target date by which time this review will report, except, obviously, any interim or full report will no doubt be suppressed by the Labour party spin doctors until after the May local elections, just like the other alleged Reviews.

Why is there not a continuous independent data security and privacy audit, throughout Government, with the power to stop IT projects, to fine and discipline and prosecute transgressors ?

The current Information Commissioner, CESG etc. and private sector IT security and Information Assurance people only act as consultants and advisors, and have little actual power to enforce minimum standards on penny pinching accountants and political apparatchiki who fail to allocate proper technical and human resources to securing the publics personal and national security related data.

I take this theft of personal data extremely seriously.

If that were true at least one Minister would have resigned over this affair, and several senior military officers would have been cashiered.

This must never happen again

If there is a further data theft, then will Des Browne resign ?


2 Comments

West Midlands Police have eventually published their Appeal
on their website:

MoD LAPTOP COMPUTER STOLEN 21 January 2008

Three men, who are all local to Birmingham, aged 28, 27 and 26 were arrested on Sunday (January 20) and released without charge today (Monday, January 21) in relation to the theft of
the computer.

Are these genuine suspects in this particular theft, or just the local known villains, who have been arrested so that the Police can be Seen To Be Doing Something ?

Presumably there is no evidence of either the laptop computer or the mobile phone , other wise they would not have been released without charge.

Officers are appealing for anyone with information about the theft, which occurred overnight between January 9 and 10, or the whereabouts of the computer to come forward.

The laptop is described as a COMPAQ Evo N600c Laptop which is black with a silver line (1.5") running top to bottom, right of centre with the words 'COMPAQ' in red ink.

The laptop features a fixed mouse area with a blue rubber cursor button between keys. The black left rubber foot on underside of the laptop is possibly missing. One of the catches on the lid is possibly broken. Laptop was stored in a black fabric case when it was stolen.

Property also stolen with the laptop includes a Nokia 6030 mobile phone, silver in colour.

Anyone with any information about the laptop or who may have been offered the laptop for sale is asked to call officers at the Major Investigation Unit at Bloxwich police station on 0845 113 5000 or call Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.

Burton Review terms of reference were announced by Des Browne:- 7 Feb 2008 : Column 78WS

DEFENCE Burton Review (MOD Data Loss)

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): On 21 January 2008 I informed the House about the theft of laptop computers from Ministry of Defence vehicles and premises and announced that, following consultation with the Information Commissioner, I had invited Sir Edmund Burton to undertake a full investigation into the losses. In response to questions I gave an undertaking to the House to provide further details of the Burton Review, including reporting timescales, when they were available. I am now in a position to do so.

I have agreed the following terms of reference for the review with Sir Edmund following consultation with the Information Commissioner:

To establish the exact circumstances and events that led to the loss by MOD of personal data; to examine the adequacy of the steps taken to prevent any recurrence, and of MOD policy, practice and management arrangements in respect of the protection of personal data more generally; to make recommendations; and to report to MOD’s permanent secretary not later than 30 April 2008.

I will make a further statement to the House once Sir Edmund’s work has been concluded.

30th AApril is the day before the May 1st Local Elections, so any publication of the Burton Review and criticism of the Labour Government will have to be after that - how convenient !

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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.

Other Links

Spam Huntress - The Norwegian Spam Huntress - Ann Elisabeth

Fuel Crisis Blog - Petrol over £1 per litre ! Protest !
Mayor of London Blog
London Olympics 2012 - NO !!!!

Cool Britannia

NuLabour

Free Gary McKinnon - UK citizen facing extradition to the USA for "hacking" over 90 US Military computer systems.

Parliament Protest - information and discussion on peaceful resistance to the arbitrary curtailment of freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, in the excessive Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 Designated Area around Parliament Square in London.

Brian Burnell's British / US nuclear weapons history at http://nuclear-weapons.info

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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